The center of gravity in world affairs has now started to shift away from the United States and its longtime North Atlantic allies, and toward Asia. The repercussions over the decades ahead will be enormous.
A number of recent developments symbolize the shift. In June, China hosted a meeting of the "Shanghai Cooperation Organization" at which Russia, most Central Asian governments, India, and Iran were all represented – but the US was notably not invited. China and Russia continue to strengthen their military coordination. North Korea and Iran have defied Washington's efforts to "contain" them – and have received tacit backing from Russia and China in doing so. On July 6, China and India opened a section of their land border to trade, sidestepping territorial and political disagreements that have separated them since the 1950s.
The major Asian powers – China, India, and Russia – now, for the first time since 1945, seem to be making their own strategic decisions without taking Washington's preferences into account. For 60 years after the Allies' 1945 victory against Japan, the US remained the strongest political player around Asia's "Pacific Rim." It never tried to create a single big alliance of likeminded powers there such as the one it sustained with West European governments through NATO.
Instead, in Asia, Washington built bilateral alliances with various governments, trying to leverage its influence by playing a "balancing role" between them. But now China and, to a lesser extent, India are emerging as self- confident new power centers. That development has considerably changed the strategic climate in Asia. And with Washington still badly bogged down in Iraq, it is starting to affect the rest of world politics, as well.
The US has already slipped a long way from being the "indispensable nation" in world affairs that, less than a decade ago, President Clinton proclaimed it to be.
This erosion of US influence is all the more notable because when George W. Bush became president in 2001, he and his cabinet publicly committed themselves to strengthening US clout in world affairs. In the key doctrinal document Mr. Bush issued in September 2002, he asserted the US's right to launch "preventive" military operations wherever it chose, unconstrained by international agreements, as well as a "transformational" commitment to exporting political and economic systems basically like its own to the rest of the world.
The world was not impressed. But since most of its peoples were still, then, very sympathetic to the pain the US had suffered in the terror attacks of 9/11, they did little to counter Bush's position. Then came the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. If, right after the invasion, Washington had pursued more sensible policies in its administration of Iraq and had urged the United Nations to take a much larger role there, then it's possible that the situation in Iraq would be much better than it now is, and that Washington could have repaired its relations with much of the rest of the world.
But the Bush administration continued to pursue largely unilateral policies in Iraq, and since then the US troop presence there has become an irritant that continues to erode Washington's global clout with every month that it is prolonged. In particular, Washington's preoccupation with Iraq has allowed the emergence of China and India as significant global powers to get under way much faster than would otherwise have been the case.
This is not all bad. After all, US citizens make up only 4 percent of the world's people, so the idea that we should have a determining voice in world affairs seems both unsustainable over the long haul and highly undemocratic. India is more than three times as populous as the US, and China more than four times. Over recent decades both these countries (but especially China) have made great progress in meeting their peoples' basic needs and providing a platform for strong engagement in world affairs. Equally notable, both thus far seem strongly committed to pursuing this engagement according to the nonviolent "rules" embodied in the UN-based international order. In the post-Hiroshima age, all of humanity should be profoundly grateful for that.
However, any shift in global power balances as significant as the one the world is now embarked on can cause uncertainty and destabilizing fear if we are not clearheaded about what is and what is not happening.
Luckily, we Americans already have some great principles that can help guide us through the years ahead. One is the set of global rules with which our own earlier presidents endowed the UN. Another goes back even further – to the Founders' simple declaration that "all men are created equal." Add women to that declaration and Americans and all the world's people have a strong basis for future coexistence.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.