In a recent essay, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recounted a story that, in my view, beautifully captures the essence of America. While covering the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s, Kristof couldn’t obtain a government pass to get through checkpoints so he used an airline mileage points card that he knew the guards couldn’t read because it was written in English. He managed to get through a few of the checkpoints before getting stopped at one, where he was “detained in a hut decorated with a grisly mural of a prisoner being impaled by a stake through the stomach.”

Kristof confesses that he was terrified. After several anxious minutes, the soldiers summoned their commander, who, fortunately for Kristof, ordered his release. Then, suddenly, one of the captors, who had minutes earlier threatened to execute Kristof, sidled up to him and whispered: “Hi, can you get me a visa to America?”

Today’s cold war between America and its allies on one side, and China, Russia, and their friends on the other, closely resembles the earlier one that ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is essentially an ideological battle between democracy and autocracy. Just as it did in the previous contest, in order to win this new version, America, as leader of the free world, needs to project self-confidence and demonstrate that it has an unshakeable belief in its democratic system of government.

As China and Russia win friends across the Global South, it can be tempting for America to employ some of their strategies as part of the effort to counter their influence. That would be a grave mistake. It is crucially important that our foreign policy makers interpret this picture correctly. The leaders in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere who cozy up to Beijing and Moscow do so because they like the Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin governing templates, which give those two men total dominion over their populations. There is no evidence to suggest that the majority of average citizens of the Global South find China and Russia attractive. If America lowers its standards to win friends in the developing world to catch up with Russia and China there, a sense that I get sometimes these days, it would be joining a race to the bottom.

This phenomenon exists in the corporate world. Every so often, there are companies that try to use unsound business practices to win market share in their industries. When that happens, it is up to their competitors to decide whether to join that race to the bottom, or wait patiently for the suicidal companies to flame out. China has quickly learned that its no-questions-asked approach to lending to countries in the Global South may not be wise after all. Because of bad management, many of those debtor nations do not appear to be in a position to repay their loans. America needs to convince itself that it can win any ideological contest anywhere in the world by properly showcasing its democratic values.

In the words of Kristof, “Desperate foreigners sometimes see our nation’s resilience more clearly than we do.” As an immigrant who tasted life in many places before coming to America, I couldn’t agree more with him. Direction of travel is the test that I always use to figure out what the preferred ideology and way of life for most people around the world is. I was in the Soviet Union when it collapsed, and during that period, I saw tens of thousands of Soviets line up at American embassies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities to apply for visas to emigrate to America.

Today, many Chinese citizens are making the same choice. 13,800 high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) are reported to have left China in 2023. That number is expected to increase to 15,200 in 2024. The main reason for those departures, according to the report’s authors, is “uncertainty over China’s economic trajectory and geopolitical tensions.” The report goes on to say that “The U.S., China’s international archrival, stands out as the top destination.”

These facts, that tens of thousands of Russians, Chinese, and others from the Global South are unhappy in their own countries and feel compelled to emigrate, are crucially important for American leaders to keep in mind at all times as they make foreign policy decisions. They show that the governance models that China and Russia are trying to export are unlikely to be loved, ever, in most parts of the world. I found it quite interesting that the HNWIs from China cited geopolitical tensions as one of their reasons for emigrating. The rivalry today is mainly between America and China. But it sounds as if large numbers of Chinese like the American story better than that of their own nation. If that doesn’t boost our self-confidence, I don’t know what else will.

In all likelihood, even more Chinese would like to head our way if they could. But most cannot afford it so for now it is only the HNWIs emigrating. Kristof’s captor also clearly wanted to travel in the same direction to escape the conditions in his war-torn country, but is stuck there because he is not a HNWI. There are millions of Sudanese and other Africans just like him who would dearly love to come to America but cannot. The plain truth is that America is a brand that most people around the world want to buy. The last thing we want to do in this country is to lose confidence in our own product.

It is equally important for us to remember that we owe a duty to oppressed people like the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who are sometimes forced against their will to leave their homelands. Merely for criticizing Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in a letter he wrote to a friend, Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for eight years in the Gulag. Two decades after his release, he was arrested again, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from the Soviet Union. The U.S. state of Vermont became his refuge. He lived there for two decades before returning to Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. Around the world today, there are thousands of people like Solzhenitsyn who look up to America as a beacon of hope. Because they are the places with the oppressive regimes, China and Russia cannot be expected to offer sanctuary to such people.

For our global leadership to be effective, we must balance self-confidence with humility. Sanctions constitute a vital foreign policy tool, but our use of them comes across as arrogant in the eyes of many people around the world sometimes. For example, there are issues such as LGBTQ rights on which we have nothing close to a national consensus in America. We are in the thick of a vicious culture war about it, and yet, our policymakers insist that World Bank loans to poor countries be tied to them. This tone-deafness and lack of sensitivity to other people’s cultures cause alienation that we should be careful to avoid. This is not meant to say that asking for the rights of LGBTQ people elsewhere to be respected is not a worthy effort. But at times it is best to leave such advocacy to non-governmental organizations.

On this Independence Day, I pray for firm, self-confident, but humble leadership for our great country. Millions of people around the world are counting on us. May God bless America.