Which America do we want to be?

Imagine, if you will, growing up on a block where there are two bullies. Either one can beat you up anytime he wants. Fortunately, you’ve befriended one of them, and he’s protecting you from the other one.

That, in simple terms, is the way the world worked during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union provided an international “balance of power.” But the Soviet Union has gone kaput, and America is now the only superpower—the only big guy on the block. Not since the days of Imperial Rome has one country had so much ability to intervene in the economic and political affairs of other nations.

The question now is: How do we Americans want others to regard us, with fear and scorn or with trust and respect? In other words, what will we do with our power? Our answer will determine the course of history from this point forward.

Many people in the world, and some nations, already fear and scorn us. The attacks of 9-11 are evidence of that. We are the richest people in history, and collectively we are also the world’s worst contributor to global warming, exploiter of natural resources and trafficker in deadly arms. And too often, looking out for our own interests, particularly our addiction to oil, our government has embraced repressive dictatorships that treat their citizens in ways Americans would find intolerable. We shouldn’t be surprised that not everyone adores us.

At the same time the United States remains a beacon of hope and freedom and prosperity for so many in the world, truly a “golden city upon a hill.” The great and lasting virtues of America, its commitment to civil liberties and democracy, its generosity and its tolerance, are its greatest export, the currency with which it buys the good favor of other nations.

How then shall we now act? A year ago terrorists attacked us in a way that was unimaginable and horrific. We were shocked and scared. But we pulled together in wonderful ways, emerging with a new sense of national purpose. How can we best use it?

To hardliners in the Bush administration, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are evidence that the United States must employ its commanding power to protect itself in whatever ways it deems necessary, even if that means unilaterally invading a non-belligerent nation, Iraq. Whether this is a sincerely held view or just pre-election posturing designed to take our minds off the tanking economy, corporate criminality, environmental negligence and other ills associated with the administration is hard to tell. Either way, it’s a terrible and arrogant attitude to have.

A far better response to 9-11 would be to devote ourselves to genuine peacemaking in the world and to working collaboratively and inclusively with the community of nations to solve the planet’s problems. Saddam Hussein is a vile man, and his people are living a nightmare, but going to war with him in defiance of international law is neither necessary nor right.

Solving the world’s problems, including Saddam, won’t be easy. Global warming, declining fisheries, disappearing rainforests, the Israel-Palestine conflict—all require a cooperative international approach. The United States can’t bully the rest of the world’s nations, ignoring their calls for cooperation and inclusion, and expect to enjoy their respect and friendship. And without those we are ultimately powerless in the way that really matters.