There's no point railing at, or wailing over, George Bush. He is, as Bill Clinton crisply puts it, "strong-willed and focused - a formidable force". Goodbye Kyoto, farewell anti-ballistic missile treaty. Liberal hand-wringing dunks no donuts around Dallas. But there is, nevertheless, every point in addressing the people ranged behind him, the people of the United States.
Did they notice an odd little bit of cavorting from the UN's economic and social council the other day? It was voting time to fill 14 vacant places on the commission of human rights - three of them reserved for the developed west. America, with a seat since the commission began in 1947, had 41 written pledges of support - easy re-election. But this was a secret ballot and, when the boxes were opened, the US was suddenly very upset. Elected: France, Austria and Sweden (with a mere 31 votes). Not elected: the world's only superpower.
Well, of course, such things may be shrugged away. If the UN truly thinks that human rights are better guarded by Pakistan, Sudan and Sierra Leone (to name but three successful candidates) then it's destined for deserved derision. But was that the only message from a hot day's politicking in New York?
France or Austria or Sweden might have been persuaded to stand down. Nobody persuaded them. The US might have indulged in some of the vote-swapping tactics which shape such con tests. It was too proud, too confident to trade. And, at the end, there was no real doubt what had happened. A nose, duly extended, was bloodily bopped. "There is," said one western diplomat afterwards, "a perception that America wants to go it alone." There is also a perception that the rest of the world is getting cheesed off.
Does that matter? You wouldn't think so, looking at today's White House. George W is popular enough (not many points behind Clinton's old rating). He seems, moreover, to face no real opposition. Al Gore is havering around, saying he may not decide to stand next time. The ex-president has shot himself, unpardonably, in both feet. A defeated Democratic party has barely started to clear its throat yet, and the press - taking all its own guff about healing a divided nation too seriously - is quiescent and consensual. The new administration pounds on, building none of the promised bridges. Healing is a word dropped from the Republican lexicon.
You may, perhaps, have caught something of the flavour of the non-debate here in recent weeks. Bang goes Kyoto and up pop our own Bruce Anderson and Stephen Glover. Good riddance to bad rubbish, they say - because, anyway, there was never any chance of it being ratified: not a single senator would vote for it. Bang goes the ABM treaty. Good riddance to old rubbish, says William Hague, saluting briskly.
The assumption - in the UK as in the US - is that because Mr Bush ordains something, it must automatically come to pass - and that he speaks for America, the word and the deed fused in holy fire. Thus Richard Perle, a revered and gabby adviser to the Pentagon, was out and about yesterday criticising Tony Blair's "wishy-washy" stance on Star Wars 2, declaring that "he's dodging the issue - you don't have to have the details before you form a judgment on them". Translation: you just have to do what you're told. An archetypal Perle of wisdom.
There's no need, now, to run through the whole national missile defence argument again (or, indeed, to see how Kyoto might be resurrected). Such decisions - saving Oval Office displeasure - are inexorable matters of detail. Who are these "rogue states"? Is Russia in or out? Will an integrated missile policy work any better than an integrated transport policy? Concentrate for the moment on the big picture.
Action against global warming is not, apparently, in America's "best interests". Therefore it's junked and Vice-President Dick Cheney prefers to start building nuclear power plants again. Action to implement NMD and throw a couple of hundred billion dollars at it is similarly sanctified. But what does that say about fundamental American attitudes? Read the lips of this new administration. They are cocks of the walk. They wish to dispose, not propose.
They see themselves as the new masters of a globalised world. Russia is a broken power; China needs cutting down to size. They won the cold war because they broke the Soviet economy and thus the Soviet system without firing a shot; and there's no real risk of a fresh arms race today. In 20 years - throwing cash at their friends in Lockheed and the rest - they can turn a universal trick. Free trade plus a big stick in the sky equals dominance on every front because would-be competitors won't be able to afford to compete. This will be peace on American terms. QED.
It is not, in itself, a malign strategy. It may be advanced for the best of all reasons: because George W and his colleagues genuinely believe that their way, their hegemony, is best for the world. But we also need to see it in human terms. It is the return, in spades, of the Ugly American. How does a nation - a profoundly democratic nation - come to terms, at an individual level, with the realisation that it not liked or respected? That it is seen as a big-spending bully?
No difficult question. It pauses and fractures. You can begin to see it happening already - not just in the tremors of May Day but in a battered Congress crawling back into life. Does Bush get what Bush wants? Nope. He wanted education vouchers and public funds helping private schools. He isn't getting them. When the people saw the details, they didn't like them. And the habit is catching. Listen to Senator Tom Daschle, the minority leader, breaking a long silence: "A missile defence system that undermines our nation politically, economically and strategically - without providing any real security - is no defence at all." Listen to Senator John Kerry: "Missile defence is the response of last resort, when diplomacy and deterrence have failed."
These are authentic political voices because they echo the worries of people who have time to think. They are the reopening of debate. They begin to separate democratic realities from swaggering declarations. They remind us, at heart, what America is and therefore can be. They will, gradually, register the glum message from last week's demonstrative UN vote: that to lead, you have to be loved.
What was wrong about the human-rights ballot was that it was secret and sneaky and a touch cowardly. It didn't, serfs muttering behind closed doors, say clearly enough what it meant. But it also said something important. If the forces of opposition are clambering to their feet at home, then for heaven's sake stand up straight for what you believe in abroad.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001