A passing incident can often be revealing of something deeper. An example is the encounter of the United States treasury director and a group of European finance ministers on 16 September 2011. Timothy Geithner, having invited himself to the Europeans' meeting, proceeded to lecture them on what he thought they needed to do to clear up the continent’s messy financial affairs. Maria Fekter, the finance minister of Austria, responded (to general surprise) by remarking on Geithner's manners. You have lectured us, she said in effect, but not listened to our own ideas.
Geithner's pleasant and mild demeanour betrays no arrogance. In policy terms he is more criticised for following too uncritically the ideas of more assertive America statesmen such as Alan Greenspan and Lawrence Summers than for being outspoken. Yet what was striking is that Fekter didn't say (as she might have done) that Geithner had a nerve in condemning European politicians for evading tough decisions when he had just flown out of a Washington in which the US president, Democrats and Republicans had embarrassingly failed to agree on a debt-reduction package. This minister of a small, if prosperous, European country merely spoke to this US cabinet officer in a way none of her predecessors would have dared.
A trivial moment in itself, but it confirmed that a time has arrived when American foreign policy is now pushing against the grain of history.
The confident decades
This is so in many fields. The widening breach between the United States and its necessary ally Pakistan; the spectacle of the US seeking to mobilise resistance to the recognition of a Palestinian state; the bizarre confusion about the economic rise of China, now hailed as the validation of capitalist ideology, now dreaded as the approach of a powerful enemy - all show how far Washington’s policies have drifted into irrelevance, and American confidence has been replaced by alternate hubris and fear.
It is particularly interesting to compare both the style and the substance of Washington diplomacy today with the way American administrations conducted their foreign policy in the late 1940s and the subsequent years. In that golden age of American power and leadership, men like Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy built great coalitions from an awkward squad of often weak and divided allies behind the firm goal of frustrating Soviet ambitions. They had the self-confidence to manage an alliance without humiliating its members.
The contrast with today is also between the poise and self-restraint of someone who knows he is strong and the neurotic shifts of one who fears he may be weakening.
The circumstances of the post-1945 era were, admittedly, very different. The American economy was then incomparably stronger than that of any ally or rival, and American military power - though perhaps not absolutely so formidable as it is today - was nowhere successfully challenged. In 2011 the American economy is plagued by multiple and grave problems: from China to Germany, many countries seem to have more economic dynamism and momentum.
The American military has demonstrated incompetence in Iraq and Afghanistan. In neither country has US intervention, though immensely costly in lives and money, achieved Washington’s goals. In Libya, Barack Obama tried to claim credit both for America’s decisive role, and for his decision not to get too heavily involved. The ambiguity reflects a reality that the world well understands: that Washington cannot afford to go on like this. The US debt crisis is to a substantial extent the result of the uncontrolled military spending of George W Bush's second administration. Those carrier battlegroups are incomparable; but they are ill-adapted to the purposes of American foreign policy.
The leaders of the immediate post-1945 period knew that history was on their side. The Marshall Plan is a good example, if only one of many. The "most unselfish act in history", as Winston Churchill called it, was in reality nothing of the kind: this immense American investment in reviving the economy of western Europe (and eastern Europe could have benefited too, if the Soviet Union had accepted the offer) was on the contrary a supreme example of enlightened self-interest.
By acting promptly, decisively and generously, the United States rescued western Europe from immiseration and stagnation. It also equipped itself with robust and mostly grateful allies, with prosperous markets and partners. In those days, politics "stopped at the water’s edge": not now.
More to the point, in the decades after the second world war, western Europe substantially adopted what was then - until the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968 - the ruling public philosophy of the United States. These “thirty glorious years" were the time of the mixed-economy social democracy of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the New Frontier, whose essential ground-rules were left intact even in the 1950s under Eisenhower.
From Franklin D Roosevelt to Lyndon B Johnson, from 1933 to 1968, the White House was held and advised by men who understood how history was turning, and had no doubt that it was turning their way. This underlying confidence was periodically alarmed and battered - by the Soviet Union's space and military advances, by guerrilla wars in the "third world", by the Vietnam war in the 1960s and the energy crisis of the 1970s; but it never quite disappeared, partly because American leaders, Democrat or Republican, understood that the United States was the beneficiary of the grand historical movements of the age. That is now, for several reasons, ceasing to be true.
From the 1970s, American corporate business set about destroying trade unions and widening the gap between owners and managers and employees. In the process the United States was turned into a class society. A determined attempt was made to use the US's power and influence to spread "Washington rules", that is, neo-liberal capitalism, through supposedly independent international organisations.
This ideological offensive had some success, particularly in countries (east-central Europe) previously repressed by state socialism or in others (India, parts of Latin America) where nominally democratic socialism failed to meet expectations; but the US's right turn has increasingly tended to isolate Washington from potentially useful and likeminded allies (Britain, Canada, northern Europe, Japan, Australia).
When the question is asked why the United States is less admired around the world than it was, part of the answer is that ideologically the United States is much less attractive than it was.
The end of the cold war was supposed to leave the United States the "lone superpower". In practice it has removed the need for allies to do whatever Washington asked. The end of the communist threat has removed a danger that all feared; the threat of Islamic terrorism, described in apocalyptic terms after 9/11 and for years afterwards, does not seem quite so urgent or totalising.
The great retreat
Perhaps the clearest instance of the way the United States, having once seemed to sail before the winds of history, now seems becalmed, is in the middle east. Since the 1970s, the United States, for creditable reasons, has chosen Israel as its favourite ally. It is often said that Israel is the only democracy in the region. There is some truth in that, though Israel’s democracy is at present far from healthy.
Over that same period, however, Washington has also built up strong links with other governments in the neighbourhood, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are not democracies at all but repressive autocracies. The United States gave tens of billions of dollars to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and his regime, notorious for its corruption and cruel repression; to oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia it has sold almost unimaginable quantities of weapons.
In 2003 the United States launched a war against the equally brutal and autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein. A large part of the justification for that war, which included the ambition to bring democracy to Iraq, was the wish to defend Israel.
Now events have taken place, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and also in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, which really do promise to bring some kind of democracy to countries that were corrupt dictatorships where torture was routine. No rule of law protected citizens from this treatment; in many of these countries the convenience of the mukhabarat, not the health of the people, was the supreme law.
The courageous uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been successful, though legitimate questions must be asked about the quality and nature of the "democracies" that will succeed. In other countries, the issue is still in doubt. Some kind of democracy seems likely to replace the Gaddafi regime in Libya, but the suffering of the Syrian people seems beyond American or western alleviation.
In June 2009, President Obama made a bold and sensitive speech in Cairo, in which he seemed to put himself on the side of democracy in the middle east. Since then, his engagement in the region has been feeble. He has allowed Binyamin Netanyahu to snub all efforts to prevent Israel repressing the Palestinians. To be sure, there are few more complex or morally ambiguous issues. Yet Obama has done nothing to help the Palestinians, everything to support a harsh Israeli government that is more criticised at home than in Washington.
The key to the situation is Saudi Arabia. It is surrounded by, and determined to resist, the Arab uprising. To its north, Shi’a and aggressive Iran, in the process of acquiring some kind of nuclear weapons, is reinforced by an Iraq, now also Shi’a-governed. To the south, Yemen is a failed state: the Saudi-supported ruling family is under armed attack, and an al-Qaida franchise is covertly but heavily attacked by the United States.
In Bahrain, when a Sunni minority regime was challenged by Shi’a activists, Saudi forces were invited in to support the local Sunni prince. Worst of all is the fate of Syria, where a Ba’ath dictatorship, in no way milder than of Saddam Hussein, is murdering its citizens at the rate of dozens a day. The citizens still bravely fight back. Yet there is no suggestion from Washington’s neo-conservatives that the United States should send in the marines or "private-security consultants" to the rescue.
Experts may quibble with details of that brief summary. But who can doubt that long-predicted showdown in the middle east must now be near, and that the regime in Saudi Arabia is the supreme test of American sincerity?
The world needs Saudi oil, and not least in the present economic crisis, because although there are many alternative sources of energy, only Saudi Arabia has a large enough surplus to export that it can alter the world oil price by increasing or withholdings production. To be sure the misogynist Saudi monarchy is tied to American business and the American military by long and profitable links. Moreover, the Israeli government and its many allies in Washington have formidable clout, derived from fundraising for politicians as well as appeals to American sympathy.
If Barack Obama decides that, with a presidential election looming, he cannot afford to annoy the Saudi princes or the American supporters of Israel; if he passes up an opportunity to help the democratic aspirations of the middle east, complex and diverse as they are, then the world will draw its own conclusions. The historic claim of the United States to be the champion of democracy, and to be the world’s political as well as military leader, will be hard to maintain. President Obama, and his Republican opponents with their cartoon version of American history, may try to suggest that today America still has history on her side. The words no longer convince.