As the overthrow of Saddam Hussein showed, American conservatives believe that preemption, the overwhelming use of force, and going it alone are at times necessary to bolster US national security. Liberals beg to differ. The New York Times, speaking for

As the overthrow of Saddam Hussein showed, American conservatives believe that preemption, the overwhelming use of force, and going it alone are at times necessary to bolster US national security.

Liberals beg to differ. The New York Times, speaking for many of the latter, editorializes against what it calls President George W. Bush's "lone-wolf record [and] overly aggressive stance," saying that these risk undermining his goals by provoking the world s enmity. All nine of the Democratic presidential candidates raise similar criticisms, as do the AFL-CIO, countless columnists, religious leaders and academics.

Beyond differing with the administration's specific actions in Iraq, the liberal argument challenges broader conservative assumptions about the utility of an assertive US foreign policy. The Bush administration, for example, was practically alone in rejecting two treaties (the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol) and two near-agreements (on small arms, on chemical and biological weapons). It also took other forceful steps (such as negating the ABM treaty with Russia and expanding NATO up to Russia s borders).

"Bush is creating new enemies faster than he is deterring old ones," is how Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia sums up the liberal accusation – one that he incisively refutes in the November 3 issue of The Weekly Standard. Alexander discerns two elements to the liberal claim: other powers for the first time feel threatened by US actions; and they are responding by taking steps against Washington. Let's consider each of these elements.

Newly threatening: Looking back over the last half-century, Alexander notes many occasions when other powers felt alienated from Washington.

  • 1950s: US allies formed a West European-only bloc. France created an independent nuclear capability.
  • 1960s: France withdrew from NATO's military structure. Most US allies vehemently protested the US war in Vietnam.
  • 1970s: OPEC directed its oil weapon primarily against the Americans to protest US policies in the Middle East.
  • 1980s: In something of a preview of today's situation, Europeans disdained Ronald Reagan as a simpleton and a cowboy, took to the streets in great numbers to protest US theater nuclear weapons, and broadly opposed US policies to build a missile defense system, reform the United Nations, and isolate the Sandinistas. On some issues, such as the Law of the Sea treaty, they unanimously opposed Washington's stance.
  • 1990s: The European Union repeatedly clashed with the United States on trade issues. It also announced the creation of a unified military force separate from NATO.

Today's tensions, in short, have a somewhat familiar air to them.

Taking steps against Washington: "Watching what people do and not simply what they say," Alexander points out, "remains the best test of what people really think of America." However noisy unfavorable opinion polls and rival diplomatic efforts may be, they do not in themselves amount to a crisis. A crisis would require other powerful states to take at least one of two steps:

  • Invest heavily in improving military capabilities through enhanced arsenals and larger troop mobilizations: This has not occurred. Alexander finds "little evidence that a build-up, as a hedge against future American actions, is even in its earliest stages." European Union states generally devote one-half to one-third what Washington does to military spending, and this general proportion has not changed in the last two years, with the exception of some small increases designed to address new terrorist priorities.

  • Build explicit military alliances: Here too, Alexander finds, "There is no evidence that cooperation between major E.U. members and Russia (or China) extends to anything beyond opposition to an invasion already over."

The response to recent American actions has been limited to words, and so has limited significance.

"By all the usual standards, then," Alexander argues, "Europeans and most others are acting as if they resent some aspects of US policy, are irritated by America's influence, oppose selected actions the administration has taken, and dislike President Bush more than his predecessor, but remain entirely unthreatened by the United States." Annoyance hardly counts as enmity.

There is no persuasive evidence "that US policy is provoking the seismic shift in America's reputation that Bush's critics detect." Translated into political terms, this means those critics need to find themselves another issue.