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Americans need to build foreigners' faith in us

Among the more charismatic stuffed animals in my son's collection is an impish bug wearing a sweater that reads "Y2K." Ten-month-old Sebastian doesn't get why, but "Dada" can't help but chuckle at the sight of this bug, a playful reminder of an averted disaster and of the carefree '90s.

I am starting to wonder, though, whether Y2K may not be getting the last laugh. It's been a rough millennium, so far, for the world's leading nation, and for the very concept of America. Such a rough millennium, in fact, that you'd almost think Y2K did hit our nation's electronic innards, causing everything to go haywire on a time delay.

Five calamities this decade have belied America's sense of self and have dented the nation's image abroad: the botched election of 2000, the 9/11 terror attacks, the Enron fraud and other colossal accounting scandals, the occupation of Iraq, and now, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

These events triggered waves of head-shaking around the world. I haven't been outside the country since Katrina hit, but I'm sure if I were overseas now, I'd be hearing the same question that has been posed to me in a number of foreign countries in the wake of the other four calamities: "How can this happen in the United States?" Followed by the assertion: "Your country is supposed to be (choose among the options, depending on the calamity) technologically advanced/ resourceful/ strong/ honest/ capable/ prepared/ organized."

Bashing the United States is a popular sport around the world, much as it was a popular sport in my junior high to bash Mr. Valencia, the vice principal. But at bottom, we knew we needed Valencia as much as the rest of the world knows it needs a powerful America. Except for crazed Islamists and the Fidel Castros of the world, scenes of a major American city literally sinking beneath floodwaters and figuratively sinking into anarchy are less a source of glee than alarm.

The outside world's valuation of American omnipotence, in fact, is like a bubble, and the further removed you find yourself from the center of things, the bigger and more preposterous it gets. Some of the most sophisticated of my Mexican acquaintances persist in crediting the United States with orchestrating political intrigues well beyond Washington's reach, and in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, plenty of people believe that the White House controls global weather patterns.

This decade's U.S. calamities keep signaling a message most foreigners do not want to hear — that the United States is more like their country than they'd previously imagined. As much as the world's sole superpower can be overbearing, people everywhere have a stake in an idealized, aspirational United States. They want to believe that they too can create a society capable of clean, foolproof elections, and one that can defend itself from outside enemies; foster a transparent, efficient marketplace; rebuild another nation if necessary; and tame nature. But if the United States can't do such things, well then, what's the point?

Yet foreigners' faith in the United States remains resilient. So the bubble doesn't pop because so many of them — including Asian central banks — keep betting on us. The United States never has to pay for its reckless fiscal policies the same way other countries do. Incredibly, the Dow Jones industrial average closed Wednesday more than 150 points higher than it closed the Friday before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. And even if it's not in vogue to appreciate it, this country is enriched daily by an inflow of hardworking, talented immigrants coming to prop up the world's model nation.

This is all to say that the reconstruction of New Orleans — much like the reconstruction of Iraq, the cleanup of American financial markets, our security and the integrity of our democracy — is a global concern. People elsewhere believe in America. We need to start giving them assurances that their faith isn't misplaced. We can coast on the vanquishing of Y2K only for so long.


Andres Martinez is the editorial page editor of the Times.