Until the late 1990s, the European Union was aspirational. Asians, South Americans, Africans and even North Americans lined up to copy it with new regional organisations - Asean, Nafta, and so on. A common currency, an enlarged union, a new ethic of humanitarian intervention and a new rapid-reaction force - with all these, the EU was tipped to be the next global power, backed up by the largest economy in the world and an enormous geographical reach.
Yet the idea of a European superpower has turned into a bad joke. Every week, we face fresh evidence of Europe's status as the "do nothing" continent: articles that compare Martian Americans with Venusian Europeans; gibes at "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"; constant media references to appeasement, sluggish growth, inability to reform; divisions between new and old, federalists and intergovernmentalists, big and small, the eurozone and the semi-detached. Public support has collapsed more quickly than a Taliban compound. The European Commission's Eurobarometer polls have shown "attachment to Europe" falling in every European country. Since 11 September 2001, the average fall is 22 per cent, but it is even worse in the Netherlands (45 per cent), Sweden (54 per cent) and Finland (61 per cent).
What has changed is the emergence of a US administration that does not actively support European unity. In the past, the number one issue for America was to get a Europe with a single phone number (as Henry Kissinger put it). Today the neoconservatives, bent on undermining any possible threat to US hegemony, pursue a policy of "divide and rule"; Europe is being beaten to a pulp in a global propaganda war it has not even started to fight. And it is not only the liberal internationalist order that Europe relied on that is being trashed. Many of the things it stands for - peace, multilateralism, compromise - have become ugly words in the Bush era.
The answer is not to fight back with the patronising anti-Americanism that Europeans find so easy - or to cobble together cynical alliances with other countries, such as Russia or China, that clearly do not share our values or interests. Nor is it to try and paper over the cracks with crass attempts at changing Europe's name, as Valery Giscard d'Estaing tried to do last year when he suggested rebranding the EU "United Europe".
Instead, we can challenge the critique by showing how successful the EU actually is. You could call it "rebranding Europe".
The starting point must be a communications strategy that looks at Europe on its own terms rather than always judging it through American spectacles. Europe's weaknesses are replayed on a continuous loop on TV screens across the globe: no vision, divided, pacifist, obsessed with legislation. Europe should show that the things Americans present as handicaps are in fact sources of strength. Europe has developed a new form of power that is uniquely suited to the world we live in - and more lasting in its impact than episodic displays of American firepower.
First, the lack of vision. US power is based on a clear vision of the future: the American dream. The European political experiment, by contrast, was based on the vision of not having a vision. The French poet Paul Valery wrote after the carnage of the First World War: "We hope vaguely, but dread precisely." In other words, we dread a return to total war but are reluctant to set out a clear common future lest we create new divisions. So Europe spreads by stealth and gradualism. Although it is responsible for half our legislation and half our trade, and controls entire areas of policy from agriculture to environmental regulation, it is practically invisible. Like a mythical spirit, Europe operates through the shell of traditional structures such as the House of Commons, the British law courts and national civil servants. This is no accident. While every US company, embassy and military base is a terrorist target, Europe's invisibility allows it to spread its influence without provocation. Even if there were people angry enough to want to fly planes into European buildings, there is no single European icon that could act as the equivalent of the World Trade Center.
Second, the divisions. The EU thrives on diversity. When there is a crisis, Americans complain that they do not know whom to turn to as the voice of Europe. But the existence of so many centres of power is the source of the EU's success. Europe's lack of a single leader allows it to expand to accommodate ever greater numbers of countries without collapsing.
The best way to understand how Europe functions is to look at a globally networked business (such as the Visa credit card company, which although it handles $2.4trn worth of consumer spending annually is a skeletal organisation with just 6,000 employees) rather than at federal countries such as the US. A networked business shares control widely, making it impossible for any single faction to dominate; it can thus combine global presence with innovation and diversity to gain the kind of edge normally reserved for start-ups. Even the good cop/bad cop routine, accidentally played by Britain and France on Iraq, could be seen as a sign of the EU's strength if you judge it by results: Bush was persuaded to go down the UN route at the beginning, to launch a Middle East road map as a payback for British support, and ultimately to secure a UN mandate for reconstruction. The network still needs to project power on occasion - as it did during Kosovo - but this can be done with coalitions of the willing, and should come as a last resort rather than as a primary means of influence.
Third, the EU's obsession with legislation is actually the perfect foil to the pyrotechnic might of the US military. It forms part of a powerful political strategy of "passive aggression". The 80,000 pages of laws developed since 1957, influencing everything from genetic labelling to human rights, have allowed Europe to "syndicate" its legislation and values across the world - from Russia to Rwanda. It does this by making access to its market conditional on compliance with its mores. Even US companies have been forced to follow European regulations in at least three spheres: mergers and acquisitions, genetically modified foods and data privacy.
To see the power of "passive aggression", compare the EU's record in its own backyard with Washington's. The dangers are the same - drug trafficking, migration, organised crime - but the responses (and success rates) could not be more different. While the EU is deeply involved in Serbia's reconstruction and supports its wish to be "rehabilitated" as a European state, the US offers Colombia only the temporary "assistance" of military training missions and aid, and the raw freedom of the US market.
Thus Europe has developed a new type of power that starts with domestic politics, not geopolitics. When the US talks to other countries, it is about the war on terror, Iraq or the International Criminal Court. Europeans start from the other end. What values underpin the state? What are its constitutional and regulatory frameworks? Turkey renounced the death penalty to further its chances of admission to the EU (just before it said no to the US on Iraq); the Czech Republic ended its ban on foreigners owning property; Italy has abandoned economic profligacy to join the euro. Europe's obsession with the law allows it to transform other countries. The US may have changed the regime in Afghanistan, but Europe is changing all of Polish society, from its economic policies and property laws to its treatment of minorities and the food that is served at its tables. The US reach is shallow and narrow. The lonely superpower can bribe, bully or impose its will almost anywhere in the world - but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the EU is broad and deep: upon entering its sphere of influence, countries are changed for ever.
So how can Europe get over its missile envy and sell itself to the world? This is hard, because its power is designed to be invisible. It has to fill what the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas calls Europe's "iconographic deficit": Europe is full of symbols that look like a nation-building project (blue flags, anthems, passports), but it can't get across more subtle messages about the combination of national identity and European power. European institutions are terrible at creating stories and pictures of European power; instead, they shower journalists with boring information and produce endless pictures of ministers getting in and out of cars and grey men lining up for summit photocalls.
Europe has to celebrate strong icons of national identity. Its rebranders need to turn the public's impression of Brussels into a place that teems with national ministers and civil servants rather than with interfering EU institutions. Koolhaas and his colleagues have come up with a symbol that does just that: a European barcode made up of national flags.
At the same time, Brussels institutions have to become visible defenders of the things Europeans care about: peace, prosperity, justice, the environment. The European Commission should have recognisable faces charged with delivering them. It should prepare a new Labour-style "grid" of good news stories in each area - focusing on clear outcomes rather than on wrangles about the European constitution and which countries are getting their way this week - so that national governments can remind their citizens, and the world, of the benefits of European integration.
But rebranding Europe will work only if it is backed up by substance. We need a security strategy, a doctrine of intervention and an end to hypocrisy on trade with the developing world. This is no small order, but if Europe's leaders can do it, the unique nature of European power could make this the European century.
Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre and co-editor of The Pro-European Reader (Palgrave Macmillan, £17.99)