To read the regular and almost universally negative international surveys of America's standing in the world since the Iraq invasion, one might presume the world was ready to do without the American superpower.
And to judge by the American public's unwavering desire for the troops in Iraq to come home – or by the sour national debate on immigration, or by citizen attacks on global free trade – one might think America was ready to oblige.
After five years of a war in Iraq that much of the world considered illegitimate, Americans are hungry for a better image abroad. More surprising perhaps is the extent to which much of the world remains hungry for American global leadership, many international-affairs experts say.
But repairing a tarnished image and reestablishing international leadership won't be easy, they add, even after the Bush administration departs and even if the war in Iraq winds down under the next presidency. That is true because the world has changed a great deal while the United States has focused on Iraq.
As a result, fixing America's leadership role won't be a matter of merely picking up where the US left off before an unpopular war. More adjustment than catch-up, the process America will have to undertake means understanding how the world has changed during the war and what different kind of leadership is now required.
"There's too much thinking that all we have to do is go back to where we were before this war, before this administration, but that's not going to work," says Bruce Jentleson, a foreign-policy specialist at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "It's a different world, one that's more complex and with less of a sense that there will be a single leader."
The fundamental changes in the world that experts say accelerated over the past half-decade include:
•The proliferation of intranational ethnic conflicts, especially but not exclusively in Africa, which require a different kind of diplomatic intervention from international tensions.
•The decentralization of Islamic extremism from Al Qaeda leadership and the challenge of its spread to the Internet.
•A global energy crunch simultaneous with global warming that makes nuclear power increasingly attractive to more countries, yet heightens the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation.
•The growing indebtedness of the US and its shrinking share of the global economic pie.
True, the Bush administration, in its second term, has made more efforts to take a global leadership role. Still, the US has something of a rude awakening ahead of it when it begins to look beyond its Iraq-tinted glasses, some international-affairs analysts say. "When we eventually do get out of Iraq and start paying attention to other things in the world, many people will be surprised at what they find," says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, a foreign-policy think tank in Washington.
While the US has been "absorbed and consumed in Iraq, there's been an empty seat at the international table where we used to be," Mr. Saunders says. "Meanwhile, China and India are moving on, and other parts of the world are moving on as well."
A key global issue that epitomizes how the US has fallen behind in leadership is climate change, many experts say.
"Are we providing the vision of a future that addresses the world's problems and offers a big-picture road map of where to go? On the global environmental issue and climate change, I can't say that we are," Mr. Jentleson says. "The world has really moved on to what the solutions are," he adds, "while we are basically still debating if it's a problem."
To regain its leadership role, the US has some adjusting to do, Jentleson says: It will have to fine-tune its concept of the challenge posed by Islamic extremism and adjust its global vision to accommodate a world of diffused power and greater pluralism.
"We keep defining the war of ideas as 'freedom versus fundamentalism,' but we have to modify that to something that allows for expanding the circle of the world's winners," he says. "We have to learn to live and help others learn to live in a world of greater pluralism – a wider circle of ethnic and religious groups."
The irony is that, after five years of a war that came to define American foreign policy for many, there is still a hunger in the world for American leadership – perhaps because no other country is prepared to fill a superpower role.
Many experts say they've come across this hunger in their travels abroad or in exchanges with close contacts overseas. One such expert is Fawaz Gerges, who says he realized how much the world craves American leadership after a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt – where he encountered an intense international interest in the US presidential campaign.
"The explanation for so much interest and enthusiasm has to lie in a deep desire for a renewal of American leadership – not for America the aggressor, but for a leadership that reestablishes the America engaged in addressing the world's problems, the America that is a referee in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the leader in standing for the rule of law," says Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle East affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "People realize that without American leadership, the world is a much more dangerous place."
Yet even if the world is hungry for American leadership, what is the American appetite to fulfill the role after a costly war and with tough economic times bearing down? Some surveys, including a periodic poll from the Pew Research Center in Washington, do show a growing desire among Americans for the US to "mind its own business." But it's still a minority of the public, and few experts see a desire to withdraw from world affairs. "Fatigue, yes," Gerges says, "but I don't see isolationism, no."
That view is backed up by a survey for the United Nations Foundation, done last year by Public Opinion Strategies, an Alexandria, Va., polling and research firm. It found that Americans favor greater international cooperation and an expansion of global partnerships – while eschewing a "go-it-alone America."
Such sentiments go back to Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, a fundamental legacy of 9/11 in the American psyche, says Jentleson of Duke University, is that "foreign policy is no longer something 'out there,' but as it turns out is actually 'in here.' " Even after the Iraq war, he adds, "the average person gets it that we are connected to the world."