I was struck by this when I read an article in the Washington post, liked by Alterman, that brought up the old question "why don't we listen anymore?" This article (like many others) points out that around the world people who were once reliably pro-American are becoming increasingly suspicious of, if not hostile to, the growing amount of American unilateralism. The classic response to this is "the United States can do what it wishes; it has the right to do so and the responsibility to do so". This is true, but it doesn't negate the previous statement. It is perhaps one of those Great Truths; that while the United States either should or must behave as its own requirements and beliefs demand (as many have argued, including Steven Den Beste in the article I referenced earlier), it is also perhaps inevitable that this will alienate its allies and further enrage its enemies (if not creating new ones.) Sometimes good and necessary actions have repercussions and negative reactions from those who are also acting in their own best interests, and who honestly believe that they are in the right. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the War on Terrorism; conflicts like those over the ICC and Kyoto seem to pivot on these fundamental differences in perspectives, interests, and conceptions of the good. (Going back partially to that "government as public good" vs. "government as necessary evil" division that seperates the United States from the rest of the first world.)
This, of course, is the center of what I think of as the "polarized world" thesis; that the rest of the world will start opposing the hegemonic power whether tacitly or openly as that power works to secure its own interests and the interests of those who are not part of that power become more and more opposed to that power. In terms of economics this wouldn't seem to make sense, but nobody sensible believes in the sort of economics-uber-alles arguments that infested the public discourse during the latter part of the 20th century; and relative national and strategic power (as opposed to economic power) is largely a zero-sum game.
Where is this going? I'm not sure, honestly. It's pretty obvious that Europe is going to start growing closer together and away from the United States at this point with or without the conflict between the United States and Islam, and Asia's not going to be as strategically friendly with the United States as some would like: the article's references of concerns over China are a good example:
In Seoul, American hostility toward North Korea is seen to be undermining President Kim Dae Jung's efforts to engage the North. Several top South Korean leaders emphasized to me that Washington either doesn't understand or doesn't care that South Korea cannot afford to take over a collapsing North Korea. "How can we make Washington understand that we need a long transition and that we must prevent, not precipitate, a sudden collapse of the North?" asked a key Korean negotiator.
In China there is widespread disappointment and resentment over the recent U.S. designation of China as a "strategic competitor rather than a strategic partner" as well as over the president's declaration that America "will do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. Both are seen as needlessly hostile... As for Taiwan, no one I met in Asia believed there is any danger of invasion...The only circumstance most observers can imagine that could provoke an attack would be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, something that, ironically, recent U.S. policies are seen to be encouraging.
This isn't about whether the United States is wrong or right in its actions, but how the rest of the world will react to them, and it seems to be increasingly likely that there will be friction if not outright fracture between the United States and the rest of the world, region by region. Even if the actions of the United States are totally justifiable and logical, that may end up being entirely meaningless if those totally justifiable and logical positions alienate a good portion of the globe.
Then again, no country can really afford to set itself against the United States, not with its huge economy and (arguably) even more impressive military. Even entire regions probably couldn't deal with the military and economic might of the United States. Everybody knows this, and I don't see it changing soon unless the corporate fallout becomes a heck of a lot worse than it already is and Japan and Europe become economic powerhouses. (Or China takes its rightful place as a key economic player; its internal economy alone could be staggering in fifty years). However, economics change much faster than diplomatic attitudes do, and the seperation of the interests of the United States and other regions around the globe isn't likely to reverse any time soon.
When the United States finally deals with the threat of militant Islam (or is consumed by it, although this is vanishingly unlikely), it may look up to see a world very different than the one it left behind in the 1990's. Even if every act it takes is a good and wise one, it may be the victim of one of those Great Truths: in doing what is in its best interests, it could simultaneously break down the international trust and respect it depends on at the same time. I don't expect the long rule of a Pax Americana.
Edit: Ugh. "Article Article".