The power of the US has been so overwhelming for so long that many think it has survived US President George W. Bush's presidency unscathed. That this is untrue is demonstrated by those, from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who are exploiting the US' loss of standing and influence. This is no cause for gloating, however.
On the contrary, it is high time for friends of the US, particularly in Europe, to realize that Washington's weakness undermines their international influence as well.
The evidence of the US' weakness is clear enough. At the height of the US' power, Russia had resigned itself to the apparently unstoppable encroachment of NATO on the Soviet Union's former sphere of influence. Putin tolerated a US presence in Central Asia to assist in the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan and raised no serious objections when the US trashed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibiting strategic missile defenses.
The US, eager to bring both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, felt scant need to consider Russian concerns, convinced that the Kremlin would have no choice but to bow to the inevitable.
That was yesterday.
Today, Putin seeks to regain the influence Russia lost in previous years. He is skillfully playing the anti-US card across Europe while putting pressure on the Baltic states, a clear warning not to extend NATO any further.
In Ukraine, political forces resisting closer strategic links to the West have gained ground. And the Kremlin is aggressively portraying the planned establishment of a modest US missile defense installation in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to Russia's vital security interests.
Or consider Iran, another power exploiting US weakness. Only a few years ago, Iran's government seemed sufficiently in awe of the US to inch toward an agreement on its nuclear program that would have interrupted, and perhaps even halted, its enrichment activities. There was talk of possible bilateral contacts with the US, which, if successful, would have ended almost three decades of hostile relations.
Today, Iran's enrichment program is going ahead despite the UN Security Council's warnings of new sanctions, while Iranian officials publicly ridicule threats of US military action.
These examples reflect the same message -- the US is losing clout around the world. The Bush administration is internationally exposed in both the arrogance of its concepts and the limits of its power. It lacks support at home and respect abroad.
Never since the US became the world's predominant power during World War II has there been a similar decline in its international influence. Even during the Vietnam War and following its withdrawal from Southeast Asia, there was never any serious doubt about the US' authority and ability to deal with what was then the central strategic challenge, the Cold War.
In today's interdependent world, however, it is no longer the number of nuclear warheads that bestows influence, but a country's ability to get others to go along with policies that it regards as serving its major interests. Bush's US has forfeited that influence in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and in much of Europe.
Many in the US like to think that this is a temporary state of affairs that will vanish with the election of a new president and Congress next year.