Some of those vulnerabilities, like the endemic U.S. trade deficit and the return of massive federal budget deficits, or the threat from militant Islam and the rise of China, are obvious. Others, like Europe's slow withdrawal from its traditionally subordinate status, or Russia's attempt to reassert control over the newly independent states who were once part of the Soviet Union, are less clear.
But if there was one headline that summed up the way the world changed while America was distracted in 2003, it came from that friendly country and close ally, whose special forces were fighting in Iraq from Day One -- Australia.
"Bush Came -- Hu Conquered," trumpeted Australia's Financial Review, after President George W. Bush's brief visit that was greeted with anti-war demonstrations and shrouded in tight security. Immediately afterwards, China's new leader Hu Jintao staged a triumphant and highly visible tour, won a standing ovation from the Australian parliament -- and arranged for the region's biggest ever energy deal as China bought into Australia's vast natural gas reserves.
China has been on a charm offensive, wooing India -- its only serious strategic challenger on the Asian mainland -- and the ASEAN group of Southeast Asian nations with trade pacts and treaties of friendship. China has played the role of a responsible great power in helping the United States manage North Korea's nuclear threat. And China is fast becoming Japan's major trading partner, while also helping the U.S. finance its trade deficit by buying almost $100 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds in the last year. This neatly financed China's trade surplus with the United States, while helping keep the Chinese currency low enough to maintain its status as America's low-cost supplier.
Only a decade ago, still tarnished by the brutal repression of Tiananmen Square, China was close to being a rogue nation. Today, with an economy almost three times larger than it was back in 1989, China looks less menacing, but potentially far stronger. On current growth rates, the Chinese economy could overtake the U.S. within the next 30 years, and China seems to be intent on making friends and partners along the way -- and other Asian states are quickly adjusting to the emergent superpower. The one country that has not seen the beaming smile on the face of the fast-enriching dragon has been Taiwan -- to whose security the United States remains hesitantly committed.
India has also been matching a friendly diplomacy to its fast-growing economic and military weight. New Delhi has offered a ceasefire and possible settlement with Pakistan over Kashmir, while also wooing the ASEAN nations, and remaining on excellent terms with Washington. Meanwhile India still buys its weapons from Russia, like the Admiral Gorchkov aircraft carrier, and tests its homegrown new Agni-3 missiles that embody the nuclear deterrent against China.
With India, China and Pakistan all nuclear powers, Asia is now assuming the geopolitical importance and hair-trigger danger that Europe suffered in the Cold War. And the European Union itself remains a major player, even though its two nuclear powers, Britain and France, were on opposite sides of the argument over the Iraq war. Indeed, the growing cohesion of the EU, both as an economic actor through the euro currency, and as a strategic actor through its Common Foreign and Security Policy, is one of the striking features of the emerging new world order.
Bickering over its budget and its draft new constitution, the EU is a quarrelsome work in progress, but the overall trend towards integration is clear. Even in the year when U.S. defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of a division between "Old" and "New" Europe over Iraq, the loyal British signed up with the French and Germans for a new EU defense structure, subtly independent from the U.S.-led NATO and able to mount military operations separately from the United States.
This need not become a problem for Washington, given the way European and U.S. troops have worked well (under NATO auspices) in Afghanistan and the Balkans. But as the EU enlarges, with Cyprus joining on May 1, 2004 and Turkey now formally accepted as a candidate member, the EU is moving closer and closer to the Middle East. This is a region where European and American interests have traditionally been at odds, from the Suez crisis of 1956, the refusal of landing rights to U.S. aircraft resupplying Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, to this year's Iraq war.
The EU and U.S. are the world's two economic giants, each accounting for almost a quarter of global GDP, and their joint failure in 2003 to secure progress at the World Trade Organization summit at Cancun, Mexico, was an important warning sign. Part of the reason for the Cancun failure was the EU-U.S. trade wars. But the other crucial factor was the emergence of a potent new counterweight from the developing world, led by Brazil, India, South Africa and China, insisting on a fairer trade deal for poorer countries.
Brazil's radical new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva symbolizes the way that Latin America is increasingly determined to go its own way, despite the powerful tradition of U.S. influence. The EU now invests more in Latin America than the United States, and China is now Argentina's largest market -- signs of erosion in Washington's role.
America's focus on the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq has shrouded the degree to which other countries are making their own arrangements -- and how far the Bush administration has been forced to adapt in its turn. In his State of the Union address in January, 2002, President Bush defined Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." But having learned the costs of unilateral American action over Iraq, he has now been persuaded to work multilaterally with less than obedient partners.
The British, French and German foreign ministers crafted a deal this year to bring Iran's nuclear ambitions back within the non-proliferation rules of the International Atomic Energy Authority, and China has become a key player in the North Korean negotiations. Perhaps President Bush has cunningly nudged the Europeans and Chinese into taking their share of responsibility for global crisis management, or perhaps the Bush administration has learned a lesson; it is too soon to tell. Either way, this is no longer the lonely American superpower running the show.
President Bush may also have cause for disappointment in his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who was hailed as a "strategic partner" at that 2001 Ljubljana summit when Bush claimed to have had a glimpse into Putin's soul and seen a heartwarming democratic future for Russia. Putin's subsequent clampdown on the Russian media and the arrest of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the renewed centralization of authoritarian power in the Kremlin along with the ruthless repression in Chechnya, make Russia look more like the old Tsarist system. Putin's recent bullying of former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova suggests that the old Russian imperial pretensions are far from dead.
But President Bush did go a long way to refute those foolish and even malicious claims that he was building a new American empire. A temporarily elected chief magistrate, in a country where legislation, the budget and the right to declare war are all reserved to the separately elected Congress, would be hard put to sustain the long haul that empire-building requires, even if two centuries of America's anti-imperial and democratic traditions did not render the notion laughable.
Bush's November speech on the need for democratic reforms and openness throughout the Middle East, and not just in Iraq, took its place in the long and proud tradition of American idealism. It may jar with the realities of anti-guerilla war in Baghdad, or the strategic importance of maintaining a stable and friendly Saudi regime, but the goal of democracy is justified in terms of human rights and in America's long-term interest. The question is whether the main players in the Middle East, whether Israel defying American advice against building more settlements on Palestinian land, or Saudis terrified that relaxing their hold will make an al-Qaida coup more feasible, see it quite Washington's way.
That has been the problem in the year 2003. For all America's wealth and power, the world did not see matters Washington's way, and began making their own, alternative arrangements. And with the United States about to become even more distracted by the introspection of a presidential election year, the world's other major powers in Europe and Asia will have even more room to maneuver and craft a world in which America no longer rules the roost. Historians may yet look back to define the Bush pesidency as the era when America's moment of undisputed power began to give way to a new balance among a series of regional powers, each able to challenge American dominance in its own sphere of influence.