Nairobi — The realisation in the United States that the war in Iraq has been lost is perhaps the most momentous fact of international politics in 2006. The time of American unilateralism is objectively over. Whether US foreign policy will come to reflect this fact, only the future will tell.
Unfortunately, this also means that a unique opportunity has been lost. For only the US - with all its power and sense of mission - had the ability to establish a new world order at the beginning of the 21st century.
To achieve this, the US would have had to subordinate its power to the goal of shaping the new order, much as it did at the close of World War II in 1945. Instead, America succumbed to the temptation of unilateralism.
National greatness for a world power always arises from its ability to shape the world. If a great power forgets this, or loses the ability to act accordingly, it begins to decline. It is almost tempting to think that America's great Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union, with its sudden disappearance 15 years ago this month, left its own Trojan horse for America - the poisoned gift of unilateralism.
Without a fundamental turnaround in American political consciousness, the unilateralist amnesia of US foreign policy will have far-reaching consequences and leave a huge vacuum in the global system. No other nation - not China, Europe, India, or Russia - has the power and the sense of mission to take on America's role.
The UN, Nato, the IMF and the World Bank, the law of nations and international criminal law, even today's free and united Europe - all are crowning achievements of US foreign policy. They mark the moments in history when America's power was used to further a global order, while also pursuing America's own interests.
America's departure from this great tradition did not begin with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Middle East, North Korea, Darfur, Central and East Africa, the Caucasus - in none of these places can the US still act successfully on its own. And yet, without America and its power, the prospects in all these places are still bleaker: more dangers and more chaos.
The situation is the same with respect to global growth, energy, resource management, climate change, environment, nuclear proliferation, arms control, and terrorism. None of these problems can be resolved or even contained unilaterally. Yet no attempted solution will get very far without the US and its decisive leadership.
This also applies to the future of the law of nations, the newly created international criminal law, and the United Nations. Unless these rules and institutions are further developed, globalisation, too, will take an ever more chaotic shape.
The question today is whether the current crisis of American consciousness marks the beginning of America's decline or, let us hope, the beginning of a return to multilateralism.
No other power will be able to assume America's role in the world for the foreseeable future. The alternative to American leadership is a vacuum and increasing chaos.
But within one or two decades maybe he will define the rules, if the US continues to reject its multilateral responsibilities. For all these reasons not only America's friends have a vital interest in a US return to multilateralism. Given the dangers of unilateralism for the current world order, so do America's enemies.