Just this spring, a number of diplomatic initiatives and conflict-settlement discussions are taking place without the United States, raising questions about the reach and strength of American global power.
The world may be simply witnessing a lull in US diplomatic results until voters pick a replacement for George W. Bush – a particularly unpopular American president on the international stage. But another reason could be at work: Is this the waning of American primacy and the dawn of an era of diffused power?
Consider these developments:
In these and other examples, both the US election and the dawn of a new era – one with diffused power – are probably both factors, many analysts say.
"There's an enormous amount of diplomatic activity and geopolitical movement taking place without US participation. Much of this is new, and it's striking," says Charles Kupchan, an international-relations expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "Part of it is the world taking steps on its own as the US focuses on its changing of the guard. But certainly a crucial factor is the world's changing balance of power."
This "changing balance" is causing a shift to new words to describe how the world will work in the post-Iraq-war, globalized era. Gone is the first Bush term's vision of unipolarity. And while some experts speak of an emerging multipolarity, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass goes so far as to envision an era of "nonpolarity" where no power will dominate.
For some experts, focus on the US presidential campaign and a half-decade preoccupation with Iraq are two factors pulling the US away from broader involvement in the world – while also obscuring the larger changes in global power distribution.
"We are seeing a diffusion of power to other actors," says Thomas Henriksen, an American foreign-policy expert at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But there are other things going on that make it hard to know if it's a major trend."
President Bush's unpopularity in the Middle East may be one explanation for diplomatic efforts such as those in Lebanon and between Israel and Syria moving ahead without the US, he says. A US overstretch in Iraq is another reason that others list.
Mr. Kupchan of Georgetown cites what he calls "mutually reinforcing explanations" for a world stage where the US is not playing the lead role.
First, "The clock is running out on the Bush administration," he says. That encourages others to try to solve problems without the US, especially in a regional context.
Second, a global shift in the distribution of power has de-emphasized American primacy. "The US is still No. 1," Kupchan says, "but globalization, the price of oil, a tanking US economy, all have joined to accelerate a dramatic shift of power towards China, the world's energy producers, and certain regional powers."
Third, he says, the post-cold-war assumption that the West's democracies "led the pack" is being challenged by the rising influence of countries such as China, Russia, and even Iran, which have a different vision for the exercise of global power. "Countries that are performing well economically or that hold a key to global prosperity are able to hold sway the way they couldn't before," Kupchan says.
This vision of the waning primacy of Western democratic ideals is developed by international-relations expert Robert Kagan in his recent book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams." In it, he foresees a return to an era of competition for spheres of influence.
But that vision paints too dark a picture of the future, some experts say.
Mr. Henriksen of the Hoover Institution notes, for example, that China has played a crucial role in the US-led effort to shut down North Korea's nuclear program.
"Nonproliferation is on everyone's list of the top international challenges that lie ahead," he says. "And this is a case where we couldn't have got where we have without the Chinese."
That example is one leading some experts to suggest a dawning "era of opportunity" for the US to join a more equal and like-minded world in addressing what they see as key challenges: terrorism and nonproliferation, the threat of pandemic disease, and global warming.
"When it comes to the two or three issues that really matter, we actually have much more in common than we ever have" with other world powers, says Nina Hachigian, a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
China and Russia are working closely with the US on proliferation and other security issues in ways that suggest how the US can benefit from an era of more equal world powers, says Ms. Hachigian, coauthor with Mona Sutphen of "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise."
She notes that the current "hand-wringing" over China's rise is reminiscent of similar consternation over Japan in the 1980s. "Now, as then, we can get worked up about other countries having power," she says, "or we can focus on the opportunities this new era presents."
Another example is Russia, she says: With Russia a key player in international weapons security efforts and in negotiations with Iran, "it doesn't make sense to talk in terms of minimizing engagement with the Russians, as in kicking them out of the G-8."
But it will take two changes for the US to take advantage of this "new era," she says: first, a US that no longer sees global power in the "zero-sum" terms of the cold-war era and second, an America that remains strong economically and diplomatically by investing more in education, infrastructure, and sciences at home.