As the US gets left behind

The US is not at the forefront of any debate that matters, except war and terrorism. The rest of the world is moving on without it.

As George Bush strolls into the leaders' meeting at Apec, I half expect to see him rubbing his eyes in a somewhat sleepy, surprised manner, like a bear coming out of hibernation.

I've just been out of the US for a fortnight, and returning to the States this past week I can't help but notice how cut-off and caught up in its own concerns this country is at the moment.

I keep thinking of Rip Van Winkle or the film While You Were Sleeping, where a character goes into a coma or long sleep and awakes to find the world a very different place. Except in this instance Bush is Van Winkle and the film title would be While You Were Iraqing.

This is Bush's seventh Apec meeting, so you'd expect him to be a comfortable and dominant player. Yet there's a sense everyone else has moved on, while he and his country are still stuck in the same place they've been for years.

The US is still very much a country at war, with so much of its focus is on its troops in the Middle East. As a measure of his priorities, Bush is actually leaving Apec early, returning to Washington to prepare for the Petraeus report.

There seems to be little oxygen left in the White House, and even in the mainstream national debate, for the issues on the agenda of the other Apec countries - climate change, free trade, and tariffs. Sure, they get mentioned here, but they're not nearly as dominant on the political or news agenda.

Part of the problem is that the US media remains guilt-stricken about its mistakes before the invasion of Iraq - its failure to question the spurious WMD evidence, Rumsfeld's strategies and the overall rationale for war.

As some kind of penance they now seem to cover little else. The odd natural disaster aside, the only other issue getting any widespread play is the 2008 presidential election. The Sunday TV morning talk shows have given up debating current policy and just debate the campaign ad nauseum.

ABC World News on Tuesday evening was a classic example of this blinkered view - it led with reflective stories on Iraq and how the presidential candidates are expected to deal with the crammed primaries early next year. Neither story had any news element - it was as if they were just the only stories anyone could think to cover.

In the past four years, America has taken its eye off the Pacific and China's growing influence to the extent that Bush this week has had to publicly deny that Apec has become a China summit.

While Bush spent US political capital in Iraq, China, India and Russia all regained status as leading nations in their own right, and others such as Brazil are staking their claim for a seat at the big table for the first time.

While Bush hesitated, most western countries accepted that humans had a role in causing climate change and must play a part in addressing it. And now as Bush enters his lame duck days, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy are launching new programmes in Europe.

In the major world events of the moment - say North Korean negotiations or the Middle East peace process - America is either just one player among many or its influence is failing. The changing tone was there for all to see at Friday's US-South Korea leaders' press conference. Close ally President Roh Moo-hyun was willing to press, even embarrass, Bush in public. In previous years, with previous Presidents, he wouldn't have dared. These days, though, the US doesn't carry the same clout or demand the same respect.

The polite analysis is that Iraq has put the US in a reflective mood, reappraising its own assumptions about itself. Less politely, you could say it's getting horribly out of touch and behind the times.

The world is moving on without America. There's a sense that the smaller countries in Apec feel more able to disagree openly with the US and treat its president as an equal in a way they wouldn't have in 2000.

The Financial Times' Martin Wolf wrote in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year (subscription required): "Delusions of an invincible superpower have perished in the sands of Mesopotamia ... The United States will long remain the world's greatest economic, military, technological, and cultural power. But its position will be one of leadership, rather than unchallenged domination."

Wolf is undoubtedly correct that any hope of domination - in the manner of the neocons and their American century - has been nipped in the bud by America's hubris and foreign policy failures. He's right that its power in economics, technology and the rest remains ahead of any other country.

But I wonder whether you could go further now and say its position of leadership is slipping. If you look at the issues being debated at Apec, America is not at the forefront of world debate on any of them, except terror and security.

There's a fear you hear expressed these days by analysts and political commentators around the world that America under the next president will turn isolationist, focusing inward on domestic issues, protecting its own markets and workforce, and shirking from a more Roosevelt- or Marshall-like role of enlightened world leadership.

My impression arriving back in the US is that it already is isolated. That may be a good thing. When the characters in those stories were in a coma, the world carried on without them and even benefited from their absence in some ways.

But back to its best America still has a vital role to play in the world, beyond its obsession with Iraq and terrorism. The question is whether it can earn back its place and the respect of others.

This post first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on September 7, 2007.