A lively debate in Washington has been over who sets the global rules: the established international organizations or the world's only superpower? Last week's US nuclear deal with India shows where that critical debate is headed.
The US-India deal, which brings India only partly into the norms of the Non-proliferation Treaty, is really a bilateral pact driven by the US. It's also a US statement about the NPT's failure to block bomb-building efforts by Iran and North Korea.
Another current example of the US trying to bend or create global rules is its demand to the United Nations on how to fix that body's Human Rights Commission, which has included such members as Cuba and Sudan. A plan for partial reform pushed by UN leaders, reflecting compromise with the UN's many nondemocratic states, is unacceptable to a White House that doesn't want such a halfway step.
Many other examples add up to a US campaign to define the world in an American image, such as who controls the Internet's protocols, by not putting Saddam Hussein on trial in the new international criminal court, and by forming a group of nations outside the Kyoto treaty to tackle climate change through technical fixes. It's even tried to redefine the Geneva Conventions for the terrorist age by holding "enemy combatants."
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, of course, stands out as a prime example of a Bush pattern in forming coalitions of nations outside the UN or other international bodies.
By and large, the US still operates as a player, even a key player, in any number of global groups, such as the World Bank or semiprivate bodies that set standards for various industries. It created most of those groups after World War II to set up global rules, often relinquishing up a portion of its sovereignty or interests.
But in recent years when the US didn't get its way, it has tried to find ways to buck or balance the will of a majority of nations. Its frustration in negotiating a new global trade pact, for instance, has led the US to form many bilateral or regional trade pacts which, it hopes, will eventually blend into a better US-defined global trading system.
This isn't unilateralism as much as it is "forum shopping," or creating many new multilateral groupings that strive to be both legitimate and effective, unlike some current global bodies. Some groupings don't work, such as the dormant Community of Democracies. Some older and well-tested bodies, such as NATO, are being prodded to venture onto new turf.
Many nations want to keep the immense power of the US within the current rules-based global system, like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver. To keep from acting like a rogue nation, however, the US must have a major hand in shaping international rules, as President Bush has tried to do. Rules that prove ineffective can quickly lose their legitimacy. Then, flexibility is needed to form a new consensus of like-minded nations around a new set of rules.
As global challenges shift, US presidents will need to change or scrap institutions and rules set up after World War II or during the cold war. Finding a new balance between US interests and those of other nations will take the same kind of American leadership as in the past.