But we have a fatal attraction for telling others how to govern their societies. A case in point is the annual survey of human rights around the world, wherein the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and other federal agencies hold the nations of the world up to American standards of democracy and freedom.
In a sense, this is one of our country's strengths: a resolve that our democratic system is the freest in the world, yielding benefits to the greatest number of inhabitants, combined with a desire to export our good fortune.
Few Americans take to the Straits of Florida in rafts to flee to Cuba, or pour across the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Ciudad Juárez. It is right and proper that tyrants know we don't approve of their practices, and will do what we can to liberate mankind.
Yet Americans like to do things in a big way, and human rights are no exception. That means such surveys are comprehensive, and indiscriminate. Not only do they document the abuses of China or Zimbabwe, but they examine the rules of governments with longer experience in democracy than ours (such as Britain) or nations that, by any rational definition, cherish liberty (such as Greece).
When told by the likes of Madeleine Albright that they have earned a solid B-plus in human rights, our democratic allies are apt to grit their teeth and smile politely. Superpower status confers a certain presumption.
Occasionally, however, one of our pupils will talk back in class. And that is what the Germans are doing now. At issue is the annual report to Congress of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which complains that contracting practices of the German government discriminate against members of the Church of Scientology. In Germany, companies seeking certain training and consulting contracts with the federal government may be disqualified if they refuse to sign "sect filter" statements, which are designed to assure that the principles of Scientology will not be employed in their work, or the work of subsidiaries, and that Scientology will not be promoted by management.
The official German attitude toward the Church of Scientology of which it manifestly does not approve has been a matter of concern to the Clinton administration. Hollywood Scientologists, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, have taken the trouble to lobby President Clinton, and their lobbying has yielded results.
The State Department regards German hostility toward Scientology as a form of religious discrimination. And when a California company called Executive Software lost business in Germany because its chairman is a Scientologist, the Clinton administration threatened to lodge a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization.
The trouble with all this is that the Germans are wholly justified in their attitude, and the Clinton administration is merely responding to pressure from Scientologists and their lawyers.
The Germans do not consider the Church of Scientology, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, to be a religion but a business enterprise, and a cult, with criminal overtones. The German ambassador in Washington, Juergen Chrobog, explains the contract regulations this way: They are "not focused on membership in the Scientology organization but... designed to rule out the possibility that Ron Hubbard's methods, which seek to psychologically influence behavior, psychologically manipulate or oppress individuals, could be used for training or consulting purposes."
As the Germans continually explain, because of their historical experience in the 20th century, they are peculiarly sensitive to the presence of cults and extremist groups in their midst. This may seem shocking to Americans, for whom tolerance is a kind of religious doctrine, but it makes sense to Germans, who have suffered greatly for past sins.
For their part, the Scientologists have deployed all manner of crude propaganda in recent years, threatening critics and drawing parallels between the Hitler regime and legal restrictions on their cult. But the truth is that German regulations which allow Scientologists to follow their leader, but bar them from government service are designed to preserve German democracy, which cults like Scientology are likely to weaken.
Americans understand the value of freedom in the world, but they do not necessarily appreciate cultural distinctions. The Germans are probably better equipped to judge how best to nurture their free society than bureaucrats at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Everyone in the world wants to be free, but not everybody yearns to be American.