The hawks around George W. Bush believed the United States had been in a slow decline for at least thirty years. Their remedy called for the United States to flex its considerable military muscle, abandon all pretense of multilateral consultations with hesitant and weak allies, and proceed to intimidate both friends and enemies alike. Then it would be in the world driver’s seat again. Instead, Iraq is a growing drain of lives and money, traditional allies are profoundly estranged, national security is more precarious than ever and economic power continues to erode. In short, the hawks have achieved the opposite of everything they intended on the world scene, except toppling Saddam Hussein.

Democratic presidential candidates and even Republican moderates are now calling for a return to the multilateralist foreign policy of previous administrations. They want to bring back the golden era of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Madeleine Albright. Is this a plausible alternative?

For the past thirty years, every administration, from Nixon to Clinton, including Reagan and Bush’s father, pursued the same basic strategy, a policy I call “soft multilateralism.” This policy had three elements: (1) offer our major allies “partnership”; (2) push hard to persuade potential nuclear powers not to “proliferate”; (3) persuade governments of the South that their economic future lay not in state-managed “development” but in export-oriented “globalization.” None of these policies were entirely successful, but each was at least partially so.

Let’s look at each of the three elements. First, when the United States found it was no longer economically dominant but had become merely one part of a so-called triad (the United States, Western Europe and Japan/East Asia), each more or less competitive with the others, it had to change the way it handled these allies. Instead of treating them as subordinates it sought their collaboration as “partners.” The real object was to slow down any and all emerging ideas that would permit political independence (such as, for example, creating a European army outside of NATO). The United States used two arguments with its allies to keep them in line. One was the continuing need to have a common front vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The second was their common interest in repelling attempts by developing countries in the South to reorganize the world-economy in a direction that was less favorable to the North.

The allies went along, but only partially. For example, in the 1980s Western European leaders (even Margaret Thatcher) signed a gas pipeline deal with the Soviet Union over US protests. But in general, European steps were timid. What undermined US political strength the most was the demise of the Soviet Union, which removed the major emotional argument that had kept the Western Europeans and the East Asians in line. It was only then that South Korea could launch a “sunshine policy” toward North Korea, against US wishes. In response, the United States pushed the expansion eastward of both NATO and the European Union, thereby bringing into these institutions countries that were in no mood to become politically independent of the United States and served therefore as a drag on such aspirations by the previous members. Glass half full.

On nuclear proliferation, the score was not too different. India and Pakistan became nuclear powers. Israel did too, although it never admitted this, and the United States winked at it. So did South Africa, whose apartheid government generously abandoned the program just before turning over power to the African National Congress. When Brazil’s generals looked as though they would proceed with a nuclear program (with Argentina just behind), the United States suddenly became in favor of democracy. The generals were ousted, and the nuclear programs abandoned. When Iraq seemed to be making progress, Israel bombed its facilities. Glass half full.

Finally, the United States was perhaps most successful in dismantling the economic developmentalist programs in the South. The Washington Consensus proclaimed that the world was in the new era of globalization, to which there was no alternative. The World Economic Forum at Davos rallied the elites behind this program. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the US Treasury enforced it. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was constructed to push the program further in multiple domains. And given first the world economic stagnation and balance-of-payments problems of countries in the South, and then the economic and political collapse of the Communist regimes of east-central Europe, most countries in the South fell into line. Glass three-quarters full.

This globalization program was already beginning to come apart in the late 1990s, before George W. Bush became President. The Europeans created the euro, which threatened the last remaining element of fundamental US economic strength, the fact that the US government was not subject to balance-of-payments dilemmas, combined with the commercial edge the reserve status of the dollar gives the United States. The financial crisis in 1997 in Southeast and East Asia, followed by those in Russia and Brazil, tarnished the sheen of globalization and brought to power a series of leaders who represented a harder line toward the United States: Roh Moo Hyun in Korea, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina. Saddam Hussein had survived the Gulf War and remained a lump in the craw of the United States and a continuing symbol of defiance for others in the Arab world. The Oslo Accord on Israel/Palestine fell apart, despite all the energy Clinton put into fulfilling it. By the time the WTO got around to trying to do its work, in Seattle in 1999, it ran into serious organized opposition, which then transmuted itself into the World Social Forum that met at Porto Alegre.

In short, the United States was already in difficulty when George W. Bush was voted in by the Supreme Court. At first, he continued the Nixon-to-Clinton foreign policy. That was, after all, the point of making Colin Powell Secretary of State. But after 9/11, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney joined forces and persuaded Bush that he had to become a wartime President and implement the program of the hawks. Bush did this and now finds himself in the impossible situation of not being able to pull back, even though the whole Iraq policy no longer seems so useful in electoral terms and is certainly not succeeding in geopolitical terms.

Those who criticize Bush for his “unilateralism” seem to think that all the United States needs to do to put the country back on track is to return to the policies of the past thirty years, and the glass would become at least half full again. This is an illusion. The reason I call the previous policy “soft” multilateralism is that the United States never really meant it. Every administration of the past thirty years assumed it would get its way at least 95 percent of the time. But it always reserved the right to go it alone if it didn’t. US diplomacy was good enough that the bluff was never called. In 2003, it was called.

Why cannot the United States simply go back to soft multilateralism? Because once Washington displayed its raw power against its allies, none of the three tactics are viable anymore. Partnership no doubt appeals to some governments in NATO. But the key ones have grown very wary of the United States. And the public opinion of those others who are still seeking partnership is not with their governments. Look at France. Pascal Boniface, director of the mainstream Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, writing in the principal conservative newspaper Le Figaro, argues that Bush merely amplified the policies of the “multilateralist” Clinton, concluding, “We are not about to see normalized relations between France and the United States.” And the historically pro-American François Heisbourg of the more conservative Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, is scarcely friendlier: “France has been right for months…. to think that ‘old Europe’ is going to jump into the same hole that the Americans are trying to get out of, that’s fantasy land.” In Germany, the most popular thing that Chancellor Schröder has done in recent years, when he and his party have otherwise been in trouble, has been standing up to the United States. And France and Germany have now announced a much closer coordination of their foreign policies, which is certainly not good news for the US State Department. It represents the reinforcement of the idea of a hard European core within the European Union that is autonomous and therefore need not follow the US lead.

As for Putin, he plays a cagey game, trying not to irritate the United States too much. But when the chips are down, he no longer goes along with Washington. Witness his overt move to continue to help Iran build a nuclear plant. He may cancel Iraqi debts (which he’d have a hard time collecting), but only if he gets new Iraqi contracts. In Spain, Prime Minister José María Aznar has found that his Iraq war policies are threatening his party’s electoral prospects. And in Great Britain, George Bush visited a country where he had to be hidden from, and protected against, the British people. He didn’t address Parliament because he feared being publicly heckled. Not like the good old days. Compare his trip with that of Reagan.

On all fronts, we are moving toward a Europe that is at least as much in competition with the United States as in alliance. Partnership? Partnership against whom? In East Asia, it may be true that all four regional powers–China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea–have reservations about each other and harbor longstanding grievances. Nevertheless, none of them is an unconditional US ally, and all of them are edging toward closer relations with the other three. How close they will be is yet to be seen, but East Asia is on the rise and is not about to take second place to a weakened United States, no matter how “multilateral” Washington claims to be.

Before September 11, many potential nuclear powers in the South were indeed hesitating. If they made a bomb, they risked US (and often European) wrath. It was expensive. It wasn’t all that easy to do. But now? Any country in the South that has looked at the second Iraq war can draw from it one simple lesson. Iraq was invaded not because it had weapons of mass destruction but because it didn’t. All the talk about the superweapons the United States has been developing forces everyone to think about how they could possibly defend themselves against a United States they do not trust. One old-fashioned atomic bomb can make the United States hesitate seriously. That has become clear in the case of North Korea. One little bomb can cause enough havoc to make it very expensive for the United States to go pre-emptive–expensive in terms of US lives lost and of the willingness of public opinion to tolerate such a loss of lives. And the more bombs a country of the South can amass, the better. The United States says it doesn’t trust these countries–not so much because they might use such bombs against one another but because they might use them against the United States. But the countries of the South think it far more likely that the United States will use such bombs (at least the so-called minibombs) against them than vice versa. We don’t have to debate who is right. The fact is that the countries of the South will continue to act on this assumption, and they are not likely to be much more accommodating to a new “multilateralist” United States than they are to George W. Bush. The Brazilian generals gave up their program in the 1980s. In Brazil, today, they are mumbling about reviving it. Yes, Libya has “renounced” making the bomb it was in fact incapable of making, lacking the necessary skilled personnel. And Iran is allowing inspections. But inspections, as we know, will not really stop the process since, under present rules, a country can do everything necessary to prepare the terrain, then renounce the treaty and make the bomb. In ten years we may expect to see another dozen nuclear powers, no matter who is President of the United States. The whole program of containing nuclear proliferation is in tatters, and it is probably an enormous waste of energy to try to revive it. The United States has got to learn to live with it, which is quite a new situation.

Finally, globalization is just about passé. It was more or less buried at Cancún in September 2003. What happened is that the countries of the South (led by Brazil, India, China and South Africa) called the bluff of the free traders. They said free trade works both ways. If you want the South to open up to the North, then the North must open up to the South: no more subsidies to Northern producers, no more tariffs to keep out goods from the South. Of course, the North never really wanted that to happen. It would be political dynamite at home. So the so-called Group of 21 said, Well then, bye-bye! The Miami meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) escaped the Cancún fiasco only because the United States and Brazil agreed to take anything important off the agenda. In short, Brazil won. The United States may twist the arm of El Salvador to sign a trade agreement, but what interests US capitalists is the Brazilian and Argentine markets, not El Salvador’s.

This attitude was made possible by three things: The first was the accumulation of negative effects of IMF and WTO policies in the South. Witness the economic collapse of Argentina, which had been the “good boy” of the IMF in the 1990s. The second was the stunning emergence of a worldwide “movement of movements,” the World Social Forum (of Porto Alegre), which, despite its very loose structure and incredible assemblage of all kinds of groups, has become a major political force in the world-system, eclipsing its rival, the World Economic Forum (of Davos). And, not least, the third was the United States’ continuing difficulties in Iraq, which have tied down its resources and political energy to the point that it is unable to mobilize successfully against the rising resistance to anything that has the smell of still more globalization.

Tomorrow, if we have a “multilateralist” US government, can it come to terms with the Group of 21? Can it construct an FTAA? Well, yes, provided it is ready to open US (and European) frontiers to an inward flow of goods from China, India, Brazil, South Africa and all the tiny, weaker countries of the South. But is anyone seriously contemplating this? Clinton, champion of free trade, wasn’t. In any case, after Bush, the price for any deal has gone up. The South will no longer be content with a little more aid and an occasional reduction in the prices of pharmaceuticals they have to buy. They want substance now, and substance means changing the structure of the world-economy in ways that reduce the advantage (and probably the standard of living) of the peoples of the North.

What can the US do to get out of the deep hole into which the Bush policy has dug us? First, it has to stop thinking of itself as the greatest country in the world and start thinking of itself as a mature country that has had both greatness and things to repent in its past. Today it is a very strong country in a multipolar world that has and will have other strong countries. Multipolarity is a great virtue, not a danger for the United States. The United States has to decide to enter into dialogue with the world. It is not that the United States has nothing to offer the world; it has plenty. But it has a lot to receive from the rest of the world as well. And it can only offer if it is ready to receive.

In terms of concrete policy, the United States needs to reverse every one of the objectives of the Nixon-to-Clinton world policy. It needs to accept, graciously, the political independence of Western Europe and East Asia, recognizing them as its political peers, who have the right to independent structures in which Washington has no say (such as military forces or currency policies). The United States would of course seek to defend its interests in its discussions with the rest of the world, but it needs to give up the idea that it should–that it can–undermine those structures. And of course Washington would have to accept that to the extent there are world laws and norms, the United States has no right to claim any exemption from them. Quite the contrary, the United States ought to be pushing for everyone to come in under the same umbrella.

Nuclear proliferation is inevitable–and it’s not necessarily bad. In 1945, the United States was the only nuclear power. Today there are at least eight such powers, and many others are on the road to getting there. Going from one to eight did not lead to nuclear war, and it’s not more likely that going from eight to twenty-five will do so. Indeed, one could make the case that it will reduce the likelihood of nuclear wars. To be sure, if the great powers could arrange very large reductions in nuclear stockpiles, this would be a plus all around. But the “middle powers” of the world are simply not going to accept having zero weapons while the United States has thousands. Knocking one’s head against a stone wall has never been an intelligent or useful policy. The United States should stop doing it. The worst of all policies is to say that the existing nuclear powers can remain at their present or ever greater strength and no one else can join them.

Neoliberal globalization has had its day; it is now dead. In the economic turmoil of the next twenty years, the major centers of capital accumulation will probably be more, not less, protectionist. And the South is not going to permit further penetration without reciprocity. The world is coming out of, not into, a free-trade era. In the 1997 financial crisis, the Asian country that did best was Malaysia, which rejected outright the advice of the IMF. What the United States should be encouraging at home and abroad is the kind of economic policies that will decrease, not increase, polarization (internally within countries, and worldwide among countries). Capitalists (American and others) should return to being entrepreneurs–that is, taking risks, reaping the gains if they are adept and accepting the losses if they are not.

Will such a radical reversal guarantee US safety, health and prosperity? There are no guarantees. But it has a far better chance than either the Bush doctrine or the now defunct Nixon-to-Clinton policies of soft multilateralism. Above all, it would allow the United States to hold its head high once again, as a country that tries to live its presumed ideals and, with some difficulty (the kind everyone has), seeks to promote the well-being of its inhabitants and be a good citizen of the world. The United States was once admired for doing this. It might be again.