Adrian Hamilton: Can America win back the world's respect?

It will take more than a change of president to repair the damage that Bush has caused
Click to follow

The biggest strains I've found in my friendships with Americans over the last few years have come not with those who voted for President Bush and believed (or at least did until relatively recently) that he was doing the right things. That is their view. As a foreigner you can argue with it but not deny it.

My real beef has been with liberal Americans, who profoundly disagreed with America's policy towards of Iraq and subsequent policy in the Middle East, felt their country shamed by the abuses of Abu Ghraib and deplored the abandonment of human rights within their country and the growing divisions between rich and poor but who simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "that's Bush". As if Bush and his consequences were somehow nothing to do with them, an alien incursion which could be ignored until he finally took his leave of the White House, at which point sanity would be restored.

Perhaps it will. Perhaps the years of the Bush presidency will pass as a bad dream, frightening while it lasted but quickly forgotten once America awakes and returns to its truer self. I would like to think so. But I don't believe it. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the damage done by Bush to America's reputation, and more important its authority, abroad is incalculable. Speaking on the BBC before returning to the US after a prolonged stint in London, James Rubin, the former assistant secretary of state at the US State Department under Bill Clinton, said quite bluntly that it would take "a generation or more" to undo the damage done by Bush abroad.

Now of course, Rubin as a Democrat would talk his party's book. But Americans abroad, in my experience, do not air their party differences in public. Indeed they remain extraordinarily loyal to their country and its president, from whatever party, to a degree that comes as something of a surprise to us more querulous Europeans. And I think he is right on both counts. Put Bill Clinton, say, back in the saddle as US envoy at large or appoint a reasonable Secretary of State with the right to forge a new foreign policy, and relations with other states can probably be soon restored.

But that doesn't even begin to tackle the profound problem that any new US President will face when looking abroad. Just consider. When President Bush was first elected the US stood pre-eminent in the world as the one superpower left standing, unchallenged in its military and political reach and unrivalled in its economic success. It was the country that most of the world not only feared but wished to emulate. In five short years all that has been thrown away. No-one in the world now thinks America's power is absolute or its forces un beatable. To have an American base on your land is an embarassment if not a positive disadvantage to your standing in your region.

Even in economics, America's global dominance has been exploded. China is now universally accepted as the coming power, with India following hard on its heels. Travel around Asia and the US is rarely mentioned. All eyes have turned from the west to the north. The same is becoming g true of Africa. America's proud isolation from the Kyoto process, re-in forced again in Bali and the subsequent statements from the White House, showed it to the world not as a self-reliant hyperpower (how could it be with its dependence on energy imports) but fairly or unfairly as a selfish profligate, unwilling to sacrifice its own consumer indulgence for the sake of the wider good. When the world's biggest bank, in the world's biggest economy has to go cap in hand to the Gulf Arab Sheikhs to keep itself funded, then the triumph of American capitalism becomes less easy to proclaim.

Now of course this is not all down to President Bush. China's day was coming, with or without Bush. A nationalist revival would have occurred in Russia, with all the ripple effects on the former Soviets, whoever was in power in Washington. But America's fall from grace in the world's eyes has been made infinitely worse by Bush's manichean vision, his obvious ignorance of how other countries act and feel, and his stubborn refusal to listen to others, learn from his mistakes or adjust his policy in the light of evident failure.

To rebuild international trust and respect, Washington needs to rethink from the bottom up its place in the world, its alliances and its policies. If it could feel itself no longer a hyperpower but instead a major power that needs to work through others, that might be a start. So would the recognition of the importance of international institutions and a reordering of its military-political balance. It can be done. The world wants it to be done. For all the damage wrought by Bush and Cheyney, most people around the globe think well of Americans as people and want America as a country to play a constructive and benign role internationally. It's just that a change in faces won't do it.