Monday, November 26, 2007

Noonan's "On Setting an Example"

I didn't read it until long after it should have been fishwrap, but Peggy Noonan's "On Setting an Example" on November 17 pretty much encapsulates what I think the practice of public diplomacy should be.

Noonan, the former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter, tends to spend her weekly column inches in the Journal Clinton-bashing, but she remains worth reading decades after her mid-'80s heyday. Never more so than now, and her column is worth quoting at length:

In some rough and perhaps tentative way [during 2008] we will have to decide what philosophical understanding of our national purpose rightly guides us.

Part of the debate will be shaped by the tugging back and forth of two schools of thought. There are those whose impulses are essentially interventionist—we live in the world and must take part in the world, sometimes, perhaps even often, militarily. We are the great activist nation, the spreader of political liberty, the superpower whose meaning is made clear in action.

The other school holds profound reservations about all this. It is more modest in its ambitions, more cool-eyed about human nature. It feels more bound by the old advice attributed to one of the Founding Generation, that we be the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.

Much has changed in the more than two centuries since he said that ... and yet as simple human wisdom, it packs a wallop still.

Those who feel tugged toward the old Founding wisdom often use the word "beacon." It is our place in the scheme of things, it is our fate and duty, to be a beacon of liberty. To stand tall and hold high the light. To be an example, to be an inspiration, to encourage. We do not invent constitutions and impose them on other countries; instead they, in their restlessness, in their human desire to achieve a greater portion of freedom, will rise up in time and create their own constitution. And because they created it, they will hold it more dearly.

So we are best, in the world as it is now, the beacon, not the bringer, of freedom. We are its friend, not its enforcer. ...

But if you want to be a beacon, it's actually a hard job. It involves activism. You can't be a beacon unless as a nation you're in pretty good shape. You can't be a beacon unless you send forth real light. You can't be a beacon unless you really do inspire.

Do we always? No. We're not always a good example for the world. And so, for the coming holiday, a few baseline areas, some only stylistic, in which we could make our light glow brighter in—and for—the world.

Noonan goes on to call for cleaner leaders, more issue-oriented political debate, a less obviously sex-focused culture and other efforts. But whether you agree with her recommendations or not, Noonan is still worth reading for a shot of inspiration about improving America's image abroad by improving America.

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