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NEW YORK — So bad has been recent publicity for the United States and its foreign policies that the visitor arriving in the U.S. nowadays has come to expect a grim reception and a nation of inward-turning people who care nothing for the world beyond America’s shores.

The visitor would therefore be delighted and surprised to find that the arrival lines at JFK Airport are short, the immigration officers polite, the customs officials relaxed and the atmosphere as warm and welcoming as it used to be.

The visitor would perhaps be further surprised to find that New York City is cleaner, safer, more vibrant and more welcoming than ever, making many a European city dull by comparison.

Yet this is the greatest city in a nation that has made its offshore prison at Guantanamo in Cuba a byword for neglect of human rights — until recently checked by its own supreme court. It has fielded armed forces that have then become involved in terrible abuses. It has ceaselessly lectured the rest of the world on the rule of law while failing notably to match the standards it preaches.

It has claimed leadership of the world’s democracies while showing scant understanding of the true meaning of democracy. It has bad-mouthed the United Nations, left the Kyoto Protocol unsigned, refused to sign up to the International Criminal Court, sucked up a quarter of the world’s oil supply, and in the Middle East, however well intentioned, has grossly mishandled the Iraq morass and is expected to do little better in handling Iran.

It has also failed in many people’s eyes to use its influence over Israel to help the peace process — which is now rapidly going backward. Now it has antagonized even its most friendly ally, Britain, by imposing one-sided treaties on extradition, which enable alleged wrongdoers to be whisked back to America while possible criminals wanted by the British, especially over murders in Ireland, remain safe on American soil.

How can it be that this dynamic and rich nation, the proverbial home of the free, can have fallen so far in world esteem when the facts on the ground are so different and the American people basically so kind, generous and wanting to be loved by the world?

The answers are many, but two are particularly worth dwelling on.

First, the Americans have saddled themselves with a very poor central government, overloaded with theory and ideology, and seriously underweight in subtlety, common sense and sheer good manners. Its leaders, from the president downward, seem not to have understood the lesson so well grasped by previous American statesmen — that the very size and success of the U.S. makes it necessary to deal gently and humbly with the rest of the world, to mute all criticisms and to show the deepest respect for other cultures, political systems and customs — in short to be the helpful and understanding friend, not the arrogant boss. This was once America’s reputation, but in Washington it seems to have been forgotten.

So bad is the administration’s image that even where its policies are well-grounded they have somehow come out wrong. American pressures for reform of the shambling U.N. are fully justified, but promoted by insensitive salesmanship. American doubts about Kyoto are correct to the extent that the Kyoto targets are far too modest. New technologies already being vigorously deployed in the U.S. to cut energy use — and therefore carbon emissions — may do far more than treaties and targets to save the planet, while delivering greater energy security in the near term as well.

But what the world sees in these stances is an insensitive administration assuming that because it is big it can call all the shots, and peddling a shallow version of democracy as the “magic potion” that will solve every country’s problems. Thus, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney harangues the Russians for their supposed back-sliding without any understanding of the adjustment problems the Russian nation faces, and at a time when Russian cooperation is needed more than ever in addressing global issues.

The second reason for America’s poor image is that despite the oceans of information that the electronic age creates, it remains a nation that is amazingly badly informed. Because it is a continent — a world in itself — interest in, and knowledge of the outside environment is amazingly slight. Europe is a vague place for holidays, the Middle East is even more remote, as well as generally hostile. Too much of America has shrugged its shoulders and turned in on itself, which accounts, of course, for the readiness of large swaths of Americans to vote for politicians who pander to the same attitudes.

The Bush administration is now trying to recover from these earlier errors of tone and judgment, and tour the world with sweeter talk. But it will take years for the old friendly image of the helpful Uncle Sam to be restored. In the meantime a vacuum opens up in global influence, which is being partly filled not by the Europeans but by the Chinese, whose diplomats are everywhere with smiles, helping hands and open purses.

For those who love the U.S. for its openness, its freedom, its superb innovative culture and its invigorating character, this collapse of American soft power and influence is a tragedy. Perhaps Washington will undergo some transforming conversion. Perhaps a different administration will begin to regain global respect. But there are few signs that this will happen soon, and in the meantime the world will continue to suffer greatly as a result.

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