Things looked so clear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the forces of civilization stood on one side and the barbarians on the other.
The very evening after the attack, President Bush announced that "America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism." The next day - for the first time in their 52-year history - members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked the organization's mutual-assistance clause and declared the assault on the United States to be "an attack against them all."
That was then. Sixteen months later, the Bush administration finds itself at odds with many of those "friends and allies," and even with a substantial number of Americans. On the first anniversary of 9/11, when Secretary of State Colin Powell told a United Nations audience that "we're all in this together," his words had come to sound pretty hollow.
To some extent, this lack of unity results from the inevitable relaxing of the guard when more than a year goes by without either major successes against terrorism or mega-incidents of terrorism (though several were near-misses, especially in New Delhi and Tel Aviv; and attacks in Bali and Moscow each led to more than a hundred deaths).
But the dissent also stems from more profound differences in outlook. Polls unanimously point to a substantial leap in anti-Americanism. A massive Pew Global Attitudes opinion survey released last month, for instance, found increasingly negative views of the United States in over two-thirds of the 27 countries it surveyed. It's become tediously commonplace to hear how Americans "deserved what they got" on 9/11.
In Europe, the signs of antipathy are sometimes startling: A book claiming that Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center as part of a U.S. government conspiracy shot to the top of the bestseller lists in France. In Florence, Italy, writes Benny Irdi Nirenstein in National Review, "300,000 Europeans - many waving Palestinian flags and sporting T-shirt images of Che Guevara, Stalin and Mao Zedong - marched to denounce the possibility that the United States will liberate the Iraqi people."
Palestinian flags and images of Stalin? What gives?
One explanation for this hostility comes in an insightful article last week by the American analyst Ken Sanes in Hong Kong's Asia Times Online.
Sanes argues that there are not two but three "super-systems" with global aspirations, systems that shape much of the planet's politics. One, of course, is militant Islam, with its dour message of extremism, intolerance, resentment, cruelty, aggression and totalitarian control. Then there is the American model of (what I term) individualistic liberalism - with its emphasis on the individualistic and even hedonistic "pursuit of happiness," plus its emphasis on free markets and limited government. These two outliers define the debate.
Then - and this is where Sanes' analysis gets interesting - there is Europe's offering of bureaucratic leftism (again, my term), which sits somewhere in between. Sanes notes how the European model shares some features with the American (its depending on the free market to create wealth) and some with the militant Islamic (its depending on strong governments to achieve its goals).
The geographic divisions are of course imperfect, there being plenty of statist liberals in the United States and at least some individualistic liberal types in Europe. (And Islamists in both places.)
Sanes' originality lies in taking the Euro-American differences and presenting them not as two variants of one system, but as two distinct systems - not two dialects of one language, but two discrete languages.
If this interpretation is correct, recent Euro-American tensions over such issues as irradiated food, the death penalty, the International Criminal Court, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict are signs of a significant division, not just transient squabbles. The face-off between the Bush administration and, say, Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is deeper and darker than usually perceived.
Sanes' perspective also has two huge implications worth pondering: The 1990s should be seen as but a temporary interlude between eras of cosmic competition. And America's allies in the last round (against the Soviet Union) are shaping up as opponents in the new one.