Against its instincts, the Bush administration succumbed to international pressure last week, signing on to a U.N. plan for disarming Iraq that omitted some of the tougher provisions Washington had initially sought. Rather than having a free hand to attack Iraq if Saddam Hussein thwarts the weapons inspectors likely to head soon to Baghdad, the U.S. has agreed to return to the U.N. Security Council for consultations before taking military action.
Although the tortuous negotiations leading to passage of the resolution focused exclusively on Iraq, they illuminate how much the global landscape has changed since George W. Bush took office. Rather than rallying behind U.S. leadership, as the world's democracies have done since World War II, most members of the Security Council backed France and locked arms to resist the U.S. The sobering reality is that America's overweening power, combined with the administration's unabashed unilateralism, is setting much of the world against the United States. With an American Goliath on the loose -- and the prospects for self-restraint remote, at best -- the globe needs a David. The increasing U.S. isolation on the world stage stems from a rare coincidence of international and domestic conditions. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Russian economy, the United States has lacked a competitor capable of pushing back. Japan has been stuck in a prolonged recession. China, with an economy smaller than California's, has aspirations but not the capability to back them up. And the European Union has been preoccupied with its own agenda -- the introduction of a single currency, enlarging the union and stabilizing the Balkans. There has been no counterpoise to U.S. power.
America's domestic landscape is similarly out of kilter. The centrist wing of the Republican Party is rapidly disappearing. Liberal internationalists like Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger and the president's father are still around, but they have been outflanked by the party's neoconservative and neoisolationist extremes. In theory, these two ascendant wings of the party should check each other; they share little common ground on foreign affairs. The neoconservatives favor the unfettered projection of U.S. power and want to recast the international system in America's image. The neoisolationists prefer a more hands-off approach to the world, enabling the country to focus on matters closer to home and avoid entanglement in distant troubles.
This ideological divide was amply evident from the beginning of Bush's presidency until Sept. 11, with the administration regularly oscillating between unilateralist and isolationist impulses. One day, the Pentagon would announce that it was beefing up the military and strengthening U.S. primacy; the next, the White House would proclaim its intention to step back from the Middle East peace process, withdraw U.S. troops from the Balkans and focus attention on relations with Mexico.
The problem is that the terrorist threat has effectively silenced the neoisolationist wing, expunging restraint from the Republican vocabulary and leaving the unilateralists unchecked. Bush appears to have become a convert, abandoning his initial goal of scaling back U.S. foreign commitments in favor of the unremitting effort needed to prevail in a "conflict between good and evil."
The Democratic Party ought to be the last line of defense, preventing the administration from pursuing policies that are serving only to stoke anti-American sentiment and distance the United States from the international community. But it has folded its tent since Sept. 11, worried that taking on Bush is too risky amid a public mood still tinged with patriotism and fear. In the lead-up to the midterm elections, Democrats criticized Bush's handling of the economy, but they gave him a blank check on foreign affairs -- and succeeded only in losing control of the U.S. Senate. Now that Democrats are in the minority in both the House and Senate, they will be even less capable of playing a restraining role.
There is no wealth of worthy candidates to be America's David. In the recent standoff at the U.N., France proved able to moderate the U.S. position largely because Paris wields a veto at the Security Council. In other settings, France simply would not have the diplomatic weight to check U.S. power.
There is really only one viable candidate for constraining an America that has lost a sense of its own bounds: a collective Europe. The European Union is militarily inferior to the United States and still struggling to define the character of its union as well as speak with a single voice on the world stage. Nonetheless, the size of its economy is comparable to America's and its population significantly larger, giving it the clout to serve as a counterweight.
In addition, Europe and America have a long history together and are not that far apart on some of the key issues of the day. In the recent U.N. debate over Iraq, for example, the distance between Washington and Paris was as much about form as substance. The French were seeking not to block an attack against Iraq but to give diplomacy a chance and to make military action legitimate through collective approval, should the use of force prove necessary. The more the EU is able to persuade the United States to play by the rules of consultation and consensus, the more Washington will find itself in a world that welcomes rather than resents U.S. leadership.
Europeans will run considerable risk by steadfastly confronting America on its foreign policy. Although the Bush administration did back down under French pressure at the U.N., it has generally been dismissive of Europe's objections to Washington's defection from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the international criminal court, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and other multilateral pacts.
Should Europe continue to dig in its heels, the emerging transatlantic rift could well become a permanent divide. But with America undermining the multilateral order that both sides of the Atlantic worked so hard to put in place after World War II, the EU must run that risk. During the last century, America tamed Europe and righted its course. It now behooves Europe to repay the debt in kind.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international, affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council, on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The End of the American Era."