America, with relish, spits on Britain

As far as the US right is concerned, new Labour is now on a par with other whingeing Europeans. Time

America appears to have a new sense of itself and its power - and with it, a contempt for Europe. American conservatives dislike us for being soft and whingeing. American liberals seem to think we have become a nest of racists and anti-Semites. "European nationalism," writes Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, "includes no conception of the multi-ethnic state. European culture is permeated with a contempt for otherness."

It must have been a little like this a century or more ago in Britain, at the high water mark of imperialism: a sense that no one else was shouldering our kind of burden, no one else had to think across continents, and that only we were imposing such sacrifices on ourselves - and thus deserved awe and respect.

Yet imperial Britain was never global, and its tools of war and communication were relatively rudimentary. Large tracts of the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and even Africa were outside its sway; other nations in Europe provided a threat to British power.

The US, however, has no rivals. It is Behemoth - the chief of the ways of God. It is also Ariel - it can put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes.

We are, on the whole, lucky that the US is running the world's affairs. Think of any other candidate, past or future, and the point is made. Russia? India? China? The European Union? The US is at once fabulous and competent, mysterious and open, patriotic and cosmopolitan. It retains a belief in itself in which others wish to share. Those who live in the comfort zones of the world, at least, regard the US as a kindly superpower, intrusive most of all in popular culture, which we can, in the end, ignore.

But we, especially in Europe, no longer reckon ourselves lucky that this superpower is at the helm - at least not publicly. We are struggling to establish another principle of rule which the US itself was instrumental in proposing after both wars of the 20th century. In the same decade of the 1990s that gave the US the strength and size of Behemoth and the rapidity and connexity of Ariel, we tried once more to develop an international rule of law; a rule of law that would cover the benign superpower as well.

The two rival systems - the benign number one power and the international rule of law - have developed in parallel and in (till now) covert competition. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, both George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, in his early years, at first thought it prudent to assume that Russia was still a co-equal superpower, and treated it accordingly. But then the charade became ridiculous: it became obvious that the US was alone on the heights.

At the same time, those who were nominally in charge of world order saw a chance of ordering the world. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN secretary-general, produced in 1992 a plan, Agenda for Peace, in which he discerned an "unprecedented commitment" by the nations of the earth to the original tasks of the UN. These tasks of securing freedom, an end to want, and peace, had been, he wrote, impossible to realise during the cold war. People, or at least the elite, were beginning to think globally: and they sought global justice and global redress.

The UN, and other bodies such as Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, indeed even puny little bodies such as the Western European Union, began to intervene to right wrongs. Some wrongs were indeed righted - tyrants were felled and usurpers laid low. Those that were not - in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda - were played out in anguish before the television cameras, which prompted the media to call for someone to do something.

Tribunals were set up to judge mass murderers who had held state power. General Augusto Pinochet, the old tyrant of Chile, came to Britain on a private visit and found himself held for 17 months while the British courts, faced with a request from Spain that he be deported there to face charges of murder and torture committed against Spanish citizens, debated what to do with him. The House of Lords concluded that "international law has made it plain that certain types of conduct . . . are not acceptable on the part of anyone". Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, warned this would "substitute the tyranny of judges for that of governments". Kissinger was himself later the object of attempted legal action in connection with events in Chile: it gave extra bite to his judgement that the International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into force earlier this year, would "turn into an instrument of political warfare".

New Labour came to power in 1997 and turned Britain's foot-dragging on the ICC into enthusiastic championing. As in its domestic policy-making, new Labour in the international arena accepted - embraced - what had been a part of the neoliberal doctrine, that of the freest trade possible. But beyond that, it was tremendously experimental. To solve the impasse in Northern Ireland, it drew the Republic of Ireland even more deeply into the province's affairs and did not simply recognise, but honoured, the ex-terrorists who ran Sinn Fein, because they might be able to turn the IRA away from its more overt terror. In Kosovo, Tony Blair was more keen on Nato intervention to push back the Serb murder gangs than any other leader, including Clinton.

New Labour, especially when Robin Cook was foreign secretary, fervently endorsed a new kind of international engagement - multilateralist, interventionist and alert to the needs and problems of the poorest states. With Clare Short as Secretary of State for International Development, backed by Gordon Brown, the British aid budget has been doubled and aid retargeted towards the poorest countries, while hugely ambitious targets on poverty reduction have been set out in official papers. New Labour also began to reverse a near-decade of declining aid to Africa. By the time George W Bush took over the White House, new Labour had become, with Canada's Liberal Party, the most interventionist and idealistic government in the world.

The UK was also the most pro-American state in the world. The natural transatlantic bias of the Foreign Office was reinforced when new Labour found, in the New Democrats, a model for their own breakthrough to government. The New Democrats taught Labour three vital lessons: that most of the electorate didn't care a fig for what was left or right; that the media were out to destroy them unless they protected themselves; and that almost any issue could be "triangulated" - that is, the "new" politician could say that she or he wasn't an old statist, and certainly wasn't a neo- conservative, but was a pragmatic and sensible type of politician primed to solve problems. Triangulation, or the Third Way, forged a bond between the Clinton Democrats and new Labour.

George Bush's victory was thus very bad news for new Labour. Yet nothing has shown Blair's political skill to better advantage than his enthusiastic overtures to Bush soon after the latter came to power, winning the UK leverage with the new administration. These overtures meant that, in the aftermath of 11 September, Blair, above all other leaders, was able to present himself side by side with the US president. He bought himself a large amount of listening time. Alone among foreign statesmen, Blair was able to influence US policy and action.

But time seems to have run out on this alliance. The realities of Bush's policies now clash with the realities of Blair's. Trade spats have emerged - the US farm subsidies and tariffs on steel imports have cost UK jobs. Tony Blair has had to swallow a number of slights by the Americans: the brusque dismissal of his offer of military collaboration in Afghanistan; the brushing aside of concerns about British citizens held among the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the flat refusal of the Bush administration to sign the Kyoto Accord.

But the differences have grown into a chasm over the Middle East. How can new Labour, with its policies on Northern Ireland, acquiesce in the US demand that Yasser Arafat, the democratically elected leader of the Palestinians, must go? How can new Labour, with its overt commitment to develop international justice, agree that US soldiers be exempt from the attentions of the ICC? How can new Labour, whose leader electrified his party conference last September with a speech that committed his movement to saving the poor, look kindly on a US administration that refuses to rise to the African challenge, and thus compromises Blair's commitment?

Britain is now considered, by the right-wing US commentators, to be of a piece with the other whingeing Europeans. In an important essay, "Power and Weakness", just published in the Hoover Institute's Policy Review, Robert Kagan writes that the European states have, since the war, become progressively concerned with their own construct - the European Union - and with their material well-being. The US, meanwhile, became the only state capable of dealing with the realities of a nasty, brutish world. "Because they are so powerful, [Americans] take pride in their nation's military power and their nation's special role in the world . . . Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise . . . it has become dependent on America's willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics."

The lines are drawn. For many on the US right, it seems they are drawn with relish - as if they could at last tell Europe where to stick its moral superiority and its wonderful traditions. For Blair, however, the challenge is larger: it is to find a way of convincing the US that it remains great by allowing its greatness to be constrained by law and hobbled by observation of democratic choice. Forty years ago, the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, compared his role with President John Kennedy to that of a Greek with an impatient Roman. Are the Americans prepared to trust, or even listen to, Greeks, when they bring advice they don't want? It seems increasingly unlikely.