It now seems possible that the first months of the Bush presidency could be defined not by tax cuts, but by an issue that received little attention during the campaign: foreign policy.
The spy-plane standoff with China is surely the most acute, and delicate, overseas problem the administration faces. Its whirlwind onset likely reminded George W. Bush that the world has a way of barging into the Oval Office and intruding on a chief executive's time - a lesson Bill Clinton learned with early crises in Somalia and Haiti.
But the China situation is far from the only foreign-policy pothole to jar the Bush team's early going. From Stockholm to Seoul, the administration's assertive style has raised other governments' ire.
Europe is infuriated by President Bush's retreat on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions (see page 6). Palestinians profess shock at his refusal to plunge into Middle East peacemaking. Virtually nobody has kind words for US missile defense.
"A number of countries are concerned that this administration, while not isolationist, is unilateralist," says Alex Lennon, editor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' journal Washington Quarterly.
Not that the rest of the world should be surprised by the actions of the new leader of what used to be called "the free world." Mr. Bush barely mentioned foreign policy during his stump speeches, but to the extent that he did, he's pretty much following what he outlined in the campaign.
That is, he promised to restore American strength and adopt a more realist view of the world. The implication was that the Clinton administration was a bunch of hand-wringers who let other countries interfere in core American interests.
The message on missile defense, for instance, has consistently been that the rest of the world will come around when they see that the US is proceeding down that path no matter what they think. Whether that approach will work in the end remains to be seen, but some countries - notably China - have at least grudgingly moved to open the subject for discussion.
Other Bush positions that have been interpreted as a hardening of US attitudes include the administration's review of the Clinton policy of engagement with North Korea, and its proposals to reduce funding for some of the US programs that pay for nuclear security and fissile-materials reductions in Russia.
One of the clearest explications of the Bush team's approach came during the president's press conference last week. The reason the US pulled out of the Kyoto global-warming treaty process, said Bush, was to protect the American economy.
His message to the rest of the globe: Deal with it.
Predictably, this stance has inflamed Europeans. America produces a quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the world, and without active US participation, the future of the Kyoto treaty is in question.
"A fatal mistake," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. "A serious unilateral act," said French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. "America the Horrible," said a columnist in Britain's left-leaning Guardian newspaper.
The Bush administration's predecessors judge that the new team has greatly altered America's role in the world. Their argument: Acting in a more multilateral fashion does not necessarily mean that US interests become secondary. It means that US interests are defined in a different, more broad manner.
"Foreign policy does not stop at ... our borders. It's about more than self-protection," said Sandy Berger, former Clinton national security adviser, at a breakfast with reporters.
Nontraditional issues - such as global warming and the rise of AIDS in Africa - are genuine threats to world stability, and thus US interests, argued Mr. Berger. If the US withdraws from a leadership role on such issues, its place will be filled by others. Europe, for instance, might have very different ideas about how to limit North Korea's nuclear ambitions, he argued.
"We should not be divesting American power and influence," Berger said.
Administration defenders say, among other things, that the world is already very different than it was in the 1990s. Big powers such as Europe, China, and Russia are again on the ascent.
The hardening of relations with old cold-war foes, and the Bush team's professed reluctance to be involved in the Balkans and other peacekeeping operations, thus represents a more "normal" kind of diplomacy, in this view.
The administration's tough talk is meant to send a negotiating message: We won't get pushed around.
"Their view is, they have to deal with major powers and they're going to concentrate less on smaller things," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-affairs expert at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor