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Americans normally shrug off newspaper headlines overseas, unconcerned by what the rest of the world thinks of us. But the events of recent months have turned a not-so-flattering mirror back upon the US, forcing us to think seriously about what it is the rest of the world is seeing.
The hurricanes that struck America's Gulf coast this autumn were just the beginning of a series of storms - both physical and political - that have done significant damage to the already fragile US image overseas. Seen through the eyes of an international audience, the images of destitute African Americans left to fend for themselves in a wasted New Orleans, of Tom DeLay, Speaker of the House, indicted and of a White House struggling to salvage a Supreme Court nominee and belatedly waking up to the dangers of bird flu, combined to create a powerful impression of insensitivity and ineptitude. Coming on the heels of a war that cast grave doubt on US leadership, these storms and our response threaten America's stature in the world.
The US's ability to shape world events rests on three pillars. The first is our economic and military power. The second is others' belief that we are using that power properly. And the third is confidence in US competence. When other countries recognise our strength, support our aims and believe that we know what we are doing, they are more likely to follow our lead. If they doubt our power, our wisdom or our ability to act effectively, US global influence shrinks. Even before the storms, the Iraq war was corroding all three elements of US power. Our armed forces have been weakened and our economy burdened by the costs of occupation, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib jail are a stain on the US's reputation.
The new Iraqi constitution will not end the insurgency and the bungled occupation has given others ample reason to doubt the US's ability to handle complex political challenges. At home, the aftermath of the storms has made matters worse in every way, as noted by foreign observers. The Russian newspaper Novosti described the US as "a giant on legs of clay, with one foot planted in New Orleans and the other in Baghdad". Germany's Die Zeit asked: "How can America expect to save the world when it cannot even save itself?"
Katrina reinforced foreign perceptions of the US as a wealthy but heartless country where racism is endemic and safety nets are lacking. The China Daily said these events revealed "just how fragile much of America's social fabric is" and Japan's Asahi Shimbun declared that "Katrina showed the world the seriousness and the sorrow of the racial disparities facing the US".
Finally, the inept US response to sequential natural disasters reinforced foreign doubts about America's competence. As Austria's Salzburger Nachrichten put it: "How is it possible that the country is so ill prepared?"
Thus, as Americans turn to the task of reconstruction, we must do so in a way that restores confidence in our values and our abilities. First, to ensure that the US's overall power remains intact, President George W. Bush must ask the American people to accept the full burden of their national ambitions. If we want to repair the damage the storms wrought, prepare for bird flu, maintain a military that is second to none, have world-class schools and exercise energetic global leadership, it is going to cost money - and it is going to require sacrifices from those who have it, rather than those who do not. Anyone who says differently is either lying or deluded.
Rebuilding New Orleans is also an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to provide for all our citizens. If New Orleans is rebuilt with condominiums for the rich, financed by cutting needed social programmes, or if the reconstruction effort is derailed by corporate greed and congressional pork, the rest of the world will have even more reason to question our values and competence. But if reconstruction is swift and New Orleans becomes a showcase of local opportunity and social justice, we will begin to restore the world's faith in US leadership.
In the past, the US was respected because its public institutions could set ambitious goals and then achieve them: recall the New Deal, the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan and the moon landing. This stormy season produced tragedies for many but we now have the opportunity to show what America can do. The world is watching; we had better not blow it.
Stephen Walt is academic dean at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy (W.W. Norton)