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The US Heads Home: Will Europe Regret It?

By Mark Leonard. Source: The Financial Times, 26th June 2004

The assertive policy of George W. Bush was supported by three factions that are now blaming eachother for the mess in Iraq. What went wrong with the 'Bush Revolution' -and is the US on the verge of isolationism again? Contact Mark at markhleonard@aol.com with your comments.

The burning of Bush The US president was once known for his ability to unite factions but, with his foreign policy in tatters around him, he is dubbed the Great Polariser. What went wrong for George W. Bush and his advisers? And will he now focus on homeland defence, not overseas threats?

Washington had been preparing for their airborne invasion for months. Every 17 years, the cicadas descend on the nation's capital like a biblical plague. They hatch, crawl out of the ground, mate, lay eggs - and then disappear for another 17 years. The Darwinian theorist, Stephen Jay Gould, says their evolutionary strategy of appearing periodically with overwhelming force and then retreating has allowed them to outwit their predators.

Observing them, a European in the imperial capital, I have come to regard their lurch from activism to retrenchment as a metaphor for American foreign policy. The French writer Raymond Aron - a rare intellectual of the right - described American policy as a series of "swings between the crusading spirit and a withdrawal into isolation far from a corrupt world that refused to heed the American Gospel". Well, we've seen the orgy of activism: an increase in military spending to match all of the rest of the world; the bonfire of international treaties (Kyoto Accord, International Criminal Court, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The trinity of American military supremacy, unilateralism and pre- emptive war was heralded as a "Bush Revolution" that would define an assertive foreign policy for a generation. But now, just four years after the man was elected, an insistent beat of comment says that America could be on the verge of retrenchment, leaving its dream of an imperial foreign policy on the streets of Falluja.

A few blocks from the White House, 150 people gather to mark the first anniversary of the end of fighting in Iraq. It is a warm and sunny day in May. The speaker is a thin-lipped, grey man, an unlikely revolutionary - more John Major than Che Guevara. Douglas Feith, under-secretary of state for policy (number three) at the Pentagon, is one of the key architects of the Bush Revolution, a dogged, dependable ally of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice-president Richard Cheney. The gathering is taking place at 1150 17th Street, a Silicon Valley for rightwing thinkers and home to the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard and the Project for the New American Century. Only a year ago the big joke making its way around the building was, "Baghdad is for wimps, real men go to Tehran". But Feith isn't here to lay out the next wave of intervention in the Middle East. Instead, he sounds defensive: "I think no one can properly assert that the failure so far to find Iraqi WMD stockpiles undermines the reasons for the war," he says. He finds himself fielding questions about the need for United Nations involvement, strategies to get allies on board, the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the lack of planning for the aftermath of war.

Outside, in the political whirlpool of Washington and in the world over which he wishes to strengthen American hegemony, Feith knows that events are not going his way. On Iraq, the administration has turned to the UN, with President Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice both doing the rounds of European capitals asking for help. On Iran, it has tacitly supported the European engagement strategy. And on North Korea they are relying on multilateral six- party talks.

Part of the reason for this, says Joseph Nye, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is that the so-called Bush Revolution was based not on a single view of the world but a marriage of convenience between three schools of foreign policy, which for shorthand are linked to historical figures: the founding secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and presidents Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.

Nye, who coined the concept of "soft power" to describe the kind of culture, political and technological influence he thinks America should be projecting, says that the "revolutionary coalition" is unravelling: "There really isn't a coherent Bush ideology but three strands of opinion competing with each other. That's why the administration has been so divided. Look at Bush's argument for intervening in Iraq. First there was WMD - which appeals to traditional security people. Then the connection with 9/11 - which appeals to assertive nationalists. And finally democratising the Middle East - which appeals to the Wilsonians (the right-wingers so-called after President Wilson)."

These groups, which stood together behind the invasion, are now falling apart and blaming each other as the situation in Iraq unravels and the Bush administration suffers in the polls. I decide to take an American journey, to observe the process close up.

Dallas, Texas. Downtown, the gleaming skyscrapers huddle together as if to draw strength from their numbers. All around this small copse of glass and marble (adorned with logos including AT&T, KPMG, Fannie Mae) is an endless sprawl of low-rise buildings that stretches as far as the eye can see - this is big-sky country. The journalist Robert Bryce tells me that Texas is the "front porch of the American psyche", explaining that Texas was a nation before it was a state, and that "the Texas myth has become America's myth. The Alamo, the Indian fighter, the cowboy, the oil man, the rough neck - all of these have become American archetypes."

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I drive into a suburb not unlike the one that George and Laura Bush chose as their home when they settled here in 1989 to run the Texas Rangers baseball team. Making my way between the sprinklers, palm trees, neo-classical columns, manicured lawns, fountains, stone cladding and mock-Tudor thatched roofs, I realise that nothing is more than 10 years old - a symbol of growing Texan affluence and the demographic explosion. In this idyllic neighbourhood of McMansions or Faux Chateaux (as a non- Texan calls them) I find the stunning house of Jim Falk, the head of the Dallas World Affairs Council, who has organised a barbecue to introduce me to the pillars of the liberal and business establishment in the town that George W. Bush thinks of as home. Sitting by the pool eating chicken and chunky burgers laced with 15 different relishes, my fellow guests and I talk about how the Bush coalition was formed.

Lynn Minna, an attorney who is also head of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, explains that, "Dallas is the home of the Baptist church. A lot of business contacts are made in church. At the beginning of meetings of the chamber of commerce, you need to hold your hands and pray." Bill McKenzie, a columnist on the Dallas Morning News, tells me how Bush has tapped into this seam of religiosity: "I remember interviewing Bush in 1997 about running for president and he said, 'I don't mean to sound too Presbyterian about this, but we are wrestling with whether this is what we are called to do. ' I don't think he feels that God put him in the White House, but he does feel he has a purpose: to defeat terrorism."

John Stephenson, who is the head of a Dallas law firm and an active member of the Dallas World Affairs Council, tells me I should remember that "foreign policy down here means Mexico". Bush came to the office even less prepared on the world's issues and problems than that other southern governor, Bill Clinton. But knowledge isn't the point. The consensus among the guests is that it's Bush's way of doing business that's important. If you know that, you can see the shape of his policies as president.

First, he's willing to spend political capital. In February this year, journalist Paul Burka wrote in Texas Monthly that "once Bush decides to take a bite of the apple, it's going to be the biggest chunk he can sink his teeth into. The argument that the status quo in the Islamic world would not change unless America did something to change it would have appealed to him. Of all the reasons to oust Saddam, the boldest was to change the paradigm."

The second thing that everybody agrees on is his ability to focus on a single strategic priority to the exclusion of almost everything else. "As governor, Bush had an intense focus, he used to say 'when everything is a priority nothing is a priority.' When he zeroes in on something he does it to the exclusion of (almost everything)," says McKenzie. "I can only assume that he is focusing on stopping another 9/11 like a laser - and that includes pre- emptive strikes. And if the Europeans don't get it," he says, smiling sweetly at me, "that's just too bad."

The third poolside topic was Bush's impatience with institutions and laws. Bush has a small-businessman's attitude towards legislation and institutions: they are things to be worked around, and are rarely seen as the solution to any problem. "I think Bush is more entrepreneurial and the EU more statist, more process- driven. For better or worse Bush is intuitive, like a lot of entrepreneurs. He gets an idea and then it is: 'Let's go!' You probably couldn't find two more distinct approaches than Bush the wild catter and the European bureaucrat," says McKenzie.

One thing his Texas friends don't understand is what happened to Governor Bush. My fellow barbecue guests say that the single distinguishing feature of Bush as governor was his capacity to reach out across political boundaries. Burka in Texas Monthly wrote that "he had all the qualities of a great governor. He was a uniter, not a divider - a centrist who fought the extremists in his own party. I would never have imagined that the person I knew would have been characterised in a Time cover story as the 'Great Polariser.'" Many people were shocked to see that he has become such a polarising figure, and one apparently careless of some of his conservative base's concerns. Chip Pitts, a corporate lawyer, said: "A lot of conservative Republicans do care about deficits. Then you add in the Gulf War. "

Chicago, Illinois. The elite in the Windy City share the view of foreign policy proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the founding secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. A New Yorker, he saw the world as a marketplace, in which foreign policy's main purpose was to enhance America's share of it. The Chicagoan corporate leaders are conservatives - nothing neo about them - who do not believe that human nature is essentially benign (or can be improved). The mark of their foreign policy is stability, and their most senior representative in the current administration is secretary of state Colin Powell.

In the wake of 9/11, Powell was at the heart of attempts to build a coalition for the invasion of Afghanistan and he played a central role in attempts to get UN backing for the war on Iraq. But he was also careful to distance himself from the zeal of his more assertive colleagues. I spoke in Chicago to Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria and Israel, who is very close to Powell. "The war in Iraq," he said, "will be debated in terms of whether it is a war of choice or necessity. There is no doubt that the Pentagon has taken the leadership over the reconstruction of Iraq. The responsibility should have been shared with the state department which would have avoided some of the mistakes that were made. But these voices were not heard. I feel very strongly that these people (civilian leadership in the Pentagon) just did not understand the political, economic and cultural situation on the ground."

Richard Lugar, the senator for the neighbouring state of Indiana, is one of the long-serving Republican foreign policy leaders and is acting chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. He spoke for many when he said in a recent speech: "To win the war against terrorism, the US must assign US economic and diplomatic capabilities the same strategic priority that we assign to military capabilities. We have relied heavily on military options and unilateral approaches that weakened our alliances."

The head of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Marshall Bouton, tells me that "Midwesterners don't care much for revolutions. The Midwest is like the fulcrum of the US body politic. The coasts go up and down but the Midwest tends towards centrist pragmatism."

In the run-up to the election, Condoleezza Rice - at that stage a member of the Bush campaign team - wrote a famous piece for Foreign Affairs that captured the Chicagoan creed: "Foreign policy in a Republican administration will proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community. America can exercise power without arrogance and pursue its interests without hectoring and bluster." Few policy statements have been so comprehensively destroyed by their author.

And the about-face was not restricted to Rice. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, explains: "If you look at Cheney's statements about why the US didn't invade Baghdad in 1991 he sounds exactly like those who opposed the recent war in Iraq. There is no question that he has undergone a profound change in world view since then."

One of the differences between these conservatives and the neo-cons is a dramatically different evaluation of US power. Mearsheimer takes umbrage at the description of the US by neo-conservatives as an "empire". He even says the term "hegemon" is an overstatement. "The US is a hegemon in the western hemisphere but when you get out of the western hemisphere it is a more complicated world."

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations says the tide of opinion among the business community is turning. "A lot of people went along for the ride because they trusted Bush," says director of studies Christopher Whitney. "Some of that has been eroded. I think the revolution is over unless Bush is suicidal." Bouton says some of the council's most popular speakers have been anti-Bush: "We had the largest turn-out for a single event with George Soros - 1,600 people came to hear him attack Bush's foreign policy."

The allies of Colin Powell are certainly feeling emboldened. One of his closest friends, speaking off the record, is jubilant: "One of the things that is clear is that the sun has set on the neo- conservatives. The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Feith group no longer has any tailwind. The realists or pragmatists led by Powell are reasserting themselves."

The Metropolitan Club, Washington DC. It is as if a piece of London's clubland in Pall Mall - complete with shabby leather armchairs and a billiard room - has been implanted in the heart of America's capital. This gentlemen's club, a block away from the White House, is a favourite haunt for neo-conservatives. They will often be found in the bar drinking Martinis and comparing notes about political developments. Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute explained who they are in "The Neo- Conservative Cabal", a 2003 article in Commentary magazine, by pointing to their heroes: Henry "Scoop" Jackson (a Washington state senator), Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. "All three believed in confronting democracy's enemies early and far from home shores; and all three were paragons of ideological warfare."

Ironically, most of those who call themselves neo-conservative were opposed to Bush in the Republican primaries. They preferred John McCain, who remains their ideological soulmate. (As Craig Kennedy, president of the German Marshall Fund, points out, it is a further irony that the people most opposed to Bush's neo-conservatism wanted Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to pick McCain as a running mate.) Their main difference with the traditional conservatives is their willingness to see American power used to advance political goals. They were, for example, in favour of action in Kosovo when President Clinton was under constant attack from traditional conservatives in Congress. Second, they believe in the pro-active promotion of democracy and want to bring about the political transformation of the Middle East. This is what has led them to be described as the Wilsonians of the right, after the president who believed in "making the world safe for democracy".

They do not, though, share all of Wilson's beliefs: "To the extent that neo-conservatives are Wilsonians," says Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, "it is Wilsonianism minus international institutions such as the UN. This is because of their belief in the fundamental illegitimacy of the UN and related bodies, due in the first instance to their undemocratic character, but based also on the way they have treated Israel and the Middle East conflict."

Within the administration, deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz is usually identified as the key actor, together with under-secretaries of state Douglas Feith and John Bolton, National Security Council staff member Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby. This is a very small proportion of the leading players, but the neo-conservative influence comes not from their position at the apex of the administration, but the power of their ideas, which offered an explanation for 9/11 and a bold prospectus for the future.

A senior administration official, speaking under the condition of anonymity, argues that the president's embrace of Wilsonianism has increased the gulf between the US and Europe. "Europe is like America before world war one: an 'it's not our problem' continent. They are a 'status-quo, don't change anything, so what if there is no freedom, so what if there is no human rights, so what if there is torture' continent. So long as we can do a trade deal most Europeans are satisfied. Americans cannot accept this. That status quo is producing toxic threats. There is some short-term surgery we need to do, and then we can focus on the long-term."

One evening at the Metropolitan Club, a couple of weeks after Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar was defeated in the elections, I met one of his senior advisers and a group of young neo-cons. Aznar's adviser is still in a state of shock. His party has paid the ultimate price for its links with the Bush administration. He had been planning to come to Washington to discuss how Aznar, as the successful former prime minister of a victorious party, could come out to help in the Bush campaign. Now he fears that no one will want to be seen with a loser. But the discussion is practical and to the point. The neo-cons show their support; they are not fair-weather friends, they say, and offer their help - ideas for universities and think-tanks where Aznar could be based, speaking agencies, foundations. In a town where politics is a revolving door, they have plenty of experience in rehabilitating former politicians.

In many ways they are a deeply attractive group. They are highly intelligent, idealistic and loyal to each other and to those who take their side. They tend to be extremely well informed about the areas they are interested in and they use their knowledge to good effect. They are not creatures of fashion and will toil away on territorial disputes in countries such as Georgia or Moldova that have dipped out of the limelight. There is a studied modesty about their significance in the American political system that is married to a dogged devotion to the causes they espouse.

And, as the situation in Iraq lurches from crisis to crisis, they are quick to point the finger at other factions in the administration. Some, like the neo-con thinker Max Boot, have called for Rumsfeld to resign. Others have tried to pin the blame on Powell. At a recent seminar, former policy adviser and now columnist Robert Kagan said: "If the secretary of state had spent as much time speaking to allies as he did talking to (writer) Bob Woodward, we might have had some support on the ground." In a stinging article in The Washington Post last month, Kagan hit out at the whole administration: "All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now. The Bush administration is evidently in a panic, and this panic is being conveyed to the American people."

Hoover Institution, Stanford, California. On a cool, cloudy morning in the spring of 1998, Texas governor George W. Bush travelled through Silicon Valley to the Stanford campus for an introduction to foreign policy. The master of ceremonies was George Schultz, Reagan's hawkish secretary of state, who had brought together half a dozen of his colleagues from the conservative Hoover Institution at the university (including Rice, then the Stanford provost). As he sat chewing the fat with these professors, Bush had still not formally announced his intention to run. The conversation meandered from one topic to another and, gradually, this group of foreign- policy hawks, who had been close to Reagan, discovered that they were growing to like the young Bush.

Many of these thinkers had as much belief in power as the neo-cons, but a less idealistic view of human nature. They have been labelled "assertive" or "Jacksonian" nationalists after Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the US. Jacksonians have consistently supported spending for defence and have never been reluctant to use weapons once purchased. Yet their aim is to enhance American power, not to save the world.

Robin West, an oil man and former assistant secretary of interior in the Reagan administration, explains: "Cheney and Rumsfeld are different from the neo-cons. They have a lot of experience. Their attitude is that these are problems that have to be dealt with. If not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?"

In the Ford administration in 1975, Rumsfeld and Cheney led the offensive against secretary of state Henry Kissinger's policy of detente towards the Soviet Union - which they believed undersold American power. Morton Abramowitz, who served in the Pentagon at the time, is quoted as saying "I remember vividly (Rumsfeld) beat the pants off Kissinger."

This history of hawkishness is confirmed by a very senior former official who looks back to the debates in the first Bush administration. "I think Cheney in the first Bush administration was the odd man out on Iraq," he says. "He wanted to go into Baghdad but was surrounded by George Bush Snr as president, General Powell as chairman of the joint chiefs, Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser and James Baker as secretary of state. I'm not as surprised by his subsequent behaviour as some."

James Lindsay, an analyst at the Council of Foreign Relations who served on Clinton's National Security Council, explains the difference between the Jacksonian and the Wilsonian strands of hawkish thinking: "If you want to understand what they believe in, look at what they do, not what they say. Within a year of the invasion of Afghanistan they introduced a budget with zero dollars for rebuilding Afghanistan. If they were interested in democracy they would have done it in Haiti."

Although Jacksonians believe that international institutions can be more of a burden than a benefit, and that an America unbound will be better able to defend itself from terrorism, they are pragmatic enough to be willing to use institutions when it serves their purposes. "The administration does not say it will not work with others, but it has strong preferences about how to work with others," says Lindsay. "First, it prefers coalitions of the willing to international institutions or permanent alliances. Second, it will go to international institutions, but it does so out of pragmatism to achieve a particular goal rather than out of principle - it is 'multilateralism a la carte'."

What distinguishes the Jacksonians is their belief in the extent of American power, and their optimism about its impact in securing US objectives. Stephen Krasner, a professor at the Hoover Institution and a close colleague of Rice, says the US has had the most successful foreign policy of any country ever. "Vietnam is the only major blip. The French have not won a war since Napoleon. The Germans have had a catastrophic foreign policy. This means that neither country is in a position to have great confidence in foreign-policy projects." But, after the cold war, the Jacksonians have been concerned to maintain US power in the face of terrorism and rogue states. "What's new is that there is a disconnect between underlying levels of power (gross domestic product, military power) and the ability to create massive disruption. A country such as North Korea with less than 1 per cent of the GDP of America, or a terrorist group, can create a strategic challenge killing hundreds of thousands or even millions with a conventional or dirty nuclear weapon," says Krasner.

The Iraq war was a central plank of a new strategy of asserting American power in this unstable world. However, instead of broadcasting American power to the world, as the Jacksonians had hoped, the intervention has simply shown its limits by getting 130,000 US soldiers bogged down in a quagmire from which they cannot escape. The goal of this group was to keep the troop commitments down to the lowest level possible - which put them on a collision course with the Wilsonians, whose central goal was to build a democracy.

"Iraq looks extremely bad now and, unless the administration can make it look plausible, there will be very little appetite for military intervention," says Krasner. "The single big question is, 'will we be able to make Iraq work?' and if that isn't possible, then you will not see decisive interventions in areas where there is any ambiguity. You will only see intervention where there is a clear threat."

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, argues that because of the central tension between the Jacksonians and the Wilsonians the Bush coalition has unravelled. "The neo-conservative agenda was a policy which required a huge commitment of resources. The Jacksonian agenda was about going in and coming out. In an odd way you got transformation on the cheap. That meant that you got not an imperial foreign policy, but a failed imperial foreign policy." Instead of concentrating their fire on their Democratic opponents, the different groups in the administration seem to be trying to pin the blame for Iraq on each other - and one of the keys to understanding the durability of the revolution will be found in the result of those arguments. But perhaps the real answer to whether the Bush Revolution will continue lies in how far it has influenced his opponent.

The Rialto Restaurant, Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is Kerry country - on the fringes of the Harvard campus, this restaurant is a magnet for political thinkers and doers. A government-in-waiting is assembling. Dinner is hosted by Nick Mitropoulis, the veteran Democrat organiser who was a senior aide to presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. The restaurant's celebrity chef, Jody Adams, explains that her menu combines the best of local Boston food with European influences. Is this another metaphor, like the cicadas, for a future Kerry administration? Or does it signify that the pro- active, interventionist, pre-emptive stance that Bush took is now common currency between Republicans and Democrats?

It's a question troubling many of these Democrats as they think through a return to power. Bill Antholis, director of studies at the German Marshall Fund who served on Clinton's National Security Council, sets out the central dilemma: "The question that is really bubbling away among Democrats is, 'just how different will we be able to be?'" Antholis's conundrum has two components: the substance of policy and the style of diplomacy.

Kerry's campaign has not challenged any of the fundamental principles behind the substance of US foreign policy. He has said frequently that he wants to make sure that America maintains its military superiority; he has echoed Bush's boast that he will not ask for "a permission slip" from America's allies to protect its security; and he has been forthright in his determination to carry on the war on terror. Graham Allison, professor of government at Harvard who served as assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, agrees that a Kerry presidency coming in after 9/11 would necessarily share many of the features of Bush's foreign policy. "Transatlantic tensions will get much worse whoever wins. The structural factors are negative: no common enemy; military competence on one side but not the other. Terrorism will divide more than it unites. Terrorists have discovered that telling people 'stick with the Americans and you'll be a target, keep your distance and you'll be fine' is powerfully persuasive."

Strobe Talbott, president of The Brookings Institution and former deputy to Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, argues that after 9/11 Democrats shared the Republicans' fears of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. "The Bush administration was right to identify Iraq as a major problem. A President Gore or McCain or Bradley would have ratcheted up the pressure, and sooner or later resorted to force."

Tony Blinken, the Democratic director of foreign policy at the Senate, agrees: "There would be substantively very little difference between a Bush and Kerry administration. There would be stylistic differences. I don't think Europeans should be under the illusion that there would be a substantive difference."

Just how different will the style be? Larry Summers, president of Harvard University and former treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, argues that the problems for the transatlantic relationship go beyond perceptions of threat to structural changes that started with the end of the cold war. "We have a problem of malign intent in Europe (a strategy of containing the US) and malign neglect in the US (a failure to consult)," he says.

Even under the Clinton administration, allies were not dealt with as equals. The model was to talk to everybody, make a decision on behalf of everybody - and then expect them to follow American leadership. Phil Gordon, who served on the National Security Council as director of European affairs under Clinton, says Clinton changed over time. "We came in talking about 'assertive multilateralism' and ended talking about the 'indispensable nation'."

This seems to suggest that the transatlantic tensions are like a Russian doll, with different layers of alienation piled on top of each other. Even if you remove the outer coating of the Bush Revolution, you will simply reveal another layer of tension caused by differing threat perceptions after 9/11. This in turn conceals the shift from a "great power" foreign policy to a "hegemonic one" that came with the end of the cold war. Finally, in the centre, you have the core difference between European and American societies on the role of government, religion and the use of force. These differences mean that a change of president will not change the underlying dynamics - even if the differences in style go a long way to removing the bad blood of the past year.

Although most people agree that the Bush Revolution has reached its high-water mark, they also agree that its central components could live on whoever wins the election in November. The grand strategist and historian, John Lewis Gaddis, argues that this is because the "Bush Revolution" was in fact no revolution at all. "Pre-emption, prevention and unilateralism are not new, but date back to the first homeland security attack on Washington in 1814." Bush differed, and was revolutionary not because he was the first to have this vision but because he was the first man in the office who found himself with both the desire and the opportunity - after 9/11 - to implement this vision. And now he is finding that America lacks both the domestic will and the international support to pull it off. New research by the Texas-based political scientist, Richard Stoll, shows that Bush's ratings on Iraq go down one point for every 30 American casualties.

This explains an emerging consensus that, having been through a period of Wilsonianism, America is about to retreat into isolationism. It will not be the isolationism of the past because America's economy is too globalised and the country maintains troops in 130 countries around the world. Instead, it will see a less ambitious foreign policy, focused on homeland defence and dealing with threats rather than with spreading democracy.

The new multilateralism that is emerging is a sign of this. It is not a multilateralism of conviction, but a new strand of isolationism for an inter-dependent age. The new motto of the administration could be seen as a shift from "multilateral if possible, unilateral if necessary" under Clinton, to "unilateral if we care about it, multilateral if we don't". On Iraq, Iran and North Korea, multilateralism is not driven by a desire to get things done but by a desire to get out. It is seen as a geo- political pause button, a way for America to regroup its political authority and rebuild its military resources.

The Europeans may have the moral high ground for now, but they should be careful what they wish for: this new humility in Washington may not be what they really want. Stanley Hoffman, European studies professor at Harvard University and a tireless critic of Bush's policies, is very worried about the lessons that will be drawn from the failure in Iraq. "What I am sometimes afraid of is that many people who supported him and are now disillusioned could become isolationist: we should stop nation building, stop fighting wars. We haven't got much from our allies - let them clear up the mess." Michael Ignatieff, Carr professor for human rights policy at Harvard University, goes even further: "This is not a country of fervent, crusading imperialists. The extraordinary thing is the self-sufficiency of the country. The big fact about liberal interventionism in the 1990s was that it depended on American power and on the assumption that we could do it with impunity. Now we are back to Black Hawk Down days. It's so bad in Iraq that it has made the case for liberal interventionism impossible."

If they are right, the future for transatlantic relations is bleak. The core feature of American foreign policy that Europeans dislike (hegemonic leadership rather than a partnership of equals) will continue, while the benefits they draw from the transatlantic relationship (engagement to solve global problems) may not.

As Andrew Moravcsik, professor of government at Harvard, argues: "While Europeans focus on avoiding the next Iraq, they might find it is a Kosovo and that they want America to intervene." If the US gets a really bloody nose in Iraq, they might not want to step in. It is a strange thing to imagine now, but Europeans may yet long for the activism of the "Bush Revolution".

Mark Leonard, the director of the UK Foreign Policy Centre, is on a fellowship at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Washington DC. He writes in a personal capacity.