They were intended as gestures of goodwill. A pair of cowboy boots, presented to each of the leaders of the world's top industrialized nations at their summer summit. Instead, the gifts were a stinging reminder.
To some in the Kremlin and the halls of Brussels, the boots symbolized two post-cold-war developments that are stirring discomfort and anger with the US: the trans-global march of American culture, and a perception that the US will tread on others, even its allies, to advance its own interests.
Recent US action on issues such as trade and the environment, NATO expansion, and containment of Iran and Cuba have only have exacerbated these sentiments.
So now, as President. Clinton attempts to douse Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's most serious challenge since the Gulf War, he risks igniting a smoldering situation. Indeed, some say the broad opposition to the use of force against Iraq is part of a growing backlash against perceived US arrogance of power.
Ironically though, the crisis may also give Mr. Clinton an opportunity to ease such apprehensions. By working with France, Russia, and Arab allies to exhaust diplomatic options, experts say Clinton is showing that the US can go the extra mile to solicit advice and help from others before pursuing its own course with or without them.
"Today American power is without peer," says Simon Serfaty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute. "But [the US] needs to be more sensitive in the way it wields that power. [The Gulf crisis] is a tremendous opportunity."
There are, however, limits on how far Clinton may bend. If he accepts a resolution that doesn't completely reverse Iraq's decision to expel American UN arms inspectors, he could convey weakness, encouraging Saddam to new provocations and raising doubts about Washington's resolve, experts say.
So while Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pursues diplomacy - she is scheduled today to review a Russian plan that would allow American inspectors to return to Iraq - Clinton continues to build up the US military presence in the Gulf. He authorized the dispatch of as many as 45 more warplanes to the area Tuesday.
As the US ratchets up military pressure on Iraq, however, other nations remain opposed to the use of force. To some degree, this is a symptom of the larger backlash against American dominance - and a consequence, many experts say, fostered by the end of the cold war. Without the Soviet Union to check the US, weaker nations worry that the US will throw its weight around.
"It should not be considered knee-jerk anti-Americanism," says Robert Jarvis, a foreign-policy expert at Columbia University. "It is a natural reaction of countries that expect power to be abused."
But he and other experts say Clinton and the GOP-run Congress have helped reinforce perceptions of US arrogance, souring relations with other international players - especially European allies. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia acknowledges the problem. "If we do not learn to change our leadership style, we will eventually have enormous resentment across the planet," Representative Gingrich said last month.
Yet a week ago, Gingrich joined other GOP leaders in blocking almost $1 billion in unpaid dues owed to the UN - just as the US sought support in the showdown with Iraq. And that was simply the latest US action that has angered allies and critics alike:
* Experts point to the way the US rode roughshod over allies at a summit this summer in Madrid, demanding that NATO expansion be limited to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
* Clinton stunned allies and others by refusing to join a global antipersonnel land mine ban in September.
* The US is under fire for taking a hard line with Iraq while failing to force concessions from Israel that could thaw the dangerously frozen Middle East peace process.
* But most alarming to governments worldwide are measures passed by Congress last year aimed at compelling support for US policies toward Cuba and Iran. The measures subject both foreigners investing in former American-owned properties in Cuba and foreign firms that sink more than $40 million in Iran's petroleum sector to US sanctions. Many nations denounce the laws as neo-American "imperialism." The European Union is threatening a trade war should Clinton authorize sanctions against its firms.
Casimir Yost, director of Georgetown University's Center for the Study of Diplomacy, says the all of these US foreign-policy decisions share a common factor: They are based on narrow domestic considerations rather than responsible uses of America's awesome power.
"We are both trying to lead and are expected to provide leadership on a broad range of global issues at a time when our ability to provide leadership ... is circumscribed by our own domestic situation," he says. "We are to some extent pursuing a hobbled foreign policy."