As the Bush administration edges ever closer to launching a war against Iraq, it is putting on the line the partnerships and principles that have served as the foundation of the international system since World War II. The tortured diplomacy of the last week made clear that Washington is prepared to break with its key allies in Europe and proceed with a war that much of the world does not support.
Toppling Saddam Hussein will do away with one of the Middle East's most aggressive regimes and will probably eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But in pursuing these worthy goals, the United States risks compromising perhaps its most precious asset -- its international legitimacy. The morning after occupying Baghdad, the United States could wake up to a world in which its power and purpose are no longer respected, but resented. In the tense days that lie ahead, Washington needs to weigh carefully whether the gains that will accompany the downfall of Hussein are worth the demise of the Atlantic alliance and America's increasing isolation in global affairs.
European objections to a war against Iraq are far from frivolous. France and Germany accept that Hussein cannot be trusted, but they maintain that beefed-up inspections can do an adequate job of containing his regime. With inspectors fanning out across the country, Hussein will have a tough time advancing his weapons programs.
Europeans also question the probable impact of war on the broader Muslim world. Whereas Washington believes toppling the Iraqi regime will advance democratizing forces in the region, Paris and Berlin foresee the radicalization of Muslim populations, including those in Europe. Washington views an attack on Iraq as a key element in the war on terrorism, while European governments fear that al-Qaida will soon enjoy a wave of angry recruits.
Reasonable people can and will disagree about these matters. The Bush team, even if it has not persuaded most of Europe, has convinced a majority of Americans that the world will be a safer place without Hussein. The problem is that the implications of impending war go well beyond Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. At stake is the very foundation of the international system -- the Atlantic alliance and the indivisibility of U.S. and European security. Since the early days of the Cold War, a coherent and cohesive West has been the anchor of international stability.
But the West is in the middle of coming apart. In the wake of the Cold War's end, some trans-Atlantic tension is unavoidable. The absence of the Soviet threat makes the need for Atlantic unity less immediate. And the European Union is coming of age and becoming more self-confident, making its members less willing to follow the U.S. lead.
The principal source of the West's erosion, however, is the United States' belligerent and unilateralist behavior.
From the outset of his presidency, George W. Bush has backed away from one international agreement after another -- the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the international criminal court and the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, to name a few.
And Bush made clear in his last State of the Union address that America is anything but a team player, insisting that "the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others."
This swagger is more than a matter of style. It arises from the conviction, widely held among Bush's advisors, that the more powerful the United States is -- and the more blustery its leadership -- the more the rest of the world will get in line.
But exactly the opposite is happening. Countries around the world are distancing themselves from the United States and locking arms to resist a wayward America. France, Germany and Russia, along with most of the European Union's smaller countries, are doing their best to block Washington's rush to war, fully aware that doing so will invoke Washington's wrath.
North Korea is threatening to restart its nuclear weapons program as it seeks a deterrent against a U.S. attack. South Korea has been none too pleased with Washington's bellicose response, with Seoul taking its own approach to the crisis of nuclear proliferation on the peninsula. Saudi Arabia is developing a political roadmap intended to rid the kingdom of its U.S. bases and personnel.
Anti-American sentiment is on the rise in just about every quarter of the globe, even in countries that have for decades been close allies. And even in countries such as Spain and Britain, whose governments are backing the Bush administration's stance on Iraq, public opinion runs decidedly against war.
The Bush administration has thus done an impressive job of doing irreparable damage to America's image in the world and to the international order that was erected under America's watch.
The impending war against Iraq represents a point of no return. Should the United States go it alone and attack Iraq without broader international support, it will cease to be a model for the world and instead be seen as a dangerous Goliath that needs to be tamed.
After Friday's ambiguous report from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to the UN Security Council, it appears increasingly probable that Washington will within a matter of weeks go to war against Iraq without the support of the UN. U.S. troops will probably be in Baghdad in short order.
But the victory will be a Pyrrhic one. Without the court of world opinion on its side, the United States will soon find that its long reign as the respected and trusted leader of the free world has come to an end. That is far too high a price to pay for toppling a regime that, however loathsome, can be adequately neutralized through vigilant containment.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The End of the American Era."