IF anyone in the United Nations still believed that the United States sees itself as part of the family of nations, and not as its patriarch, last week may have come as a rude awakening.
First, to the great dismay of its closest European allies, the Bush administration threatened to block all United Nations peacekeeping missions as they come up for renewal unless American peacekeepers are granted immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which came into being on Monday.
The allies responded with howls of outrage, accusing the United States of trying to stand above international law and promoting double standards. Then, reports surfaced in Washington that planning for a large-scale invasion of Iraq had reached an advanced stage _ even though most European governments have cautioned against such an invasion and none of the nations that would be expected to assist American troops as staging areas have been formally consulted.
In fact, as last week's events point up, a double standard is precisely what the Bush administration is pursuing. As the world's lone superpower, the United States is increasingly the main guarantor of global security and economic well-being, administration officials contend. To treat it like any other country would defy reality, they say.
"The United States plays a role in the world unlike any other," Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, told reporters last week in explaining the administration's position on the criminal court. "Therefore this affects us unlike any other nation."
To many foreign policy experts, that worldview is a natural outgrowth of America's preeminent position in the post-Soviet world, which it dominates militarily, economically and culturally. And while many of these scholars fault the Bush administration for a brusque, even arrogant brinkmanship at the United Nations, far fewer blame it for trying to control the international rules of the road. That, they say, is what all great powers have done through the ages.
"You hear Europeans say Bush is a cowboy from Texas," said William C. Wohlforth, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth. "But when the Europeans were at the top of the international heap, they were hard-bitten realists about using power, and it was the United States that was trying to outlaw war."
In an article in the July issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Wohlforth and a Dartmouth colleague, Stephen G. Brooks, argue that the United States' military and economic dominance over the world is no longer even debatable.
They note that in 2003, the United States will spend more on the Pentagon, about $400 billion, than the next 15 largest militaries combined. And its economy is twice as large as its closest rival, Japan. No other nation in history, they contend, has exerted so much military power over the land, sea and air, while also dominating the global economy.
"Today," they write, "the United States has no rival in any critical dimension of power."
That disparity, says Robert Kagan, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who lives in Brussels, has caused Europe and many other nations to depend increasingly on American power for their security and prosperity. As a result, Mr. Kagan asserts, the United States must remain free to use its power at will, lest the world fall prey to lawlessness and brutality.
THE United States must sometimes play by the rules of a Hobbesian world, even though in doing so it violates European norms," Mr. Kagan wrote in the June-July edition of Policy Review. "And it must sometimes act unilaterally, not out of a passion for unilateralism but, given a weak Europe that has moved beyond power, because the United States has no choice but to act unilaterally."
As Sept. 11 demonstrated, America's vast power also makes it a target of resentment on many fronts _ religious, economic, political and military. Indeed, the Bush administration argued that the International Criminal Court could be used to prosecute politically motivated cases against Americans.
"It's disingenuous to say America won't be a lightning rod, given our position in the world," Mr. Kagan said in an interview. "French farmers are angry at the United States, poor Egyptians are angry at the United States. It's not Luxembourg that people will be aiming their grievances at."
There is a strong temptation on both sides of the Atlantic to view the current fight over the criminal court as one more case of a conservative Republican president trying to implement a policy of unilateralism. And to be sure, Mr. Bush has built a track record of opposing international alliances, including treaties to eliminate greenhouse gases, restrict anti-ballistic missile systems, prohibit land mines and ban biological weapons testing.
But there is also a long historical tradition in the United States of viewing alliances ("entangling alliances" Thomas Jefferson called them in his 1801 Inaugural Address) with suspicion. And, Mr. Kagan contends, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson's presidency and the post-Vietnam era, the United States has tended to believe that power is necessary to advance the American ideals of democracy and free markets to the world.
Moreover, Americans have tended to regard their nation's ideals as universally applicable, as well as desirable. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it in his famous State of the Union message of 1941: "In future days, we seek to secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms." Those freedoms _ of speech, of worship, from material want and from fear _ perfectly matched America's Constitutional principles and civic culture, but they were presented as the ideal toward which the entire world should aspire _ aided by American power.
Still, if Mr. Bush's views on the International Criminal Court were not out of the mainstream for an American president, his manner of opposing it might have been counterproductive.
Past administrations tended to consult publicly with allies or work through multinational organizations like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, even if, behind the scenes, they used their power to get their way.
President Clinton, for example, also disliked the court on grounds similar to the Bush administration's. But he signed the treaty on the premise that it would be easier for the United States to change it as a member of the court. He then declined to submit it to the Senate for ratification. In May, the Bush administration invalidated Mr. Clinton's signature.
M R. BUSH'S more confrontational approach could alienate America's allies even as Washington looks to them for help in the war on terrorism. For all its power, the United States still needs the military bases, ports and air fields, fuel supplies and overflight rights that only its allies can provide. No invasion of Iraq would be possible without those things _ and angering its allies over the International Criminal Court will not help the Bush administration get them, critics contend.
"Even if Bush succeeds through bullying to get what he wants on the I.C.C. where Clinton failed through diplomacy, this is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory," said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
"It's not just about who wins, but also about how you win," he added.