From the Economist:
Yet in one way Mr Bush is unfairly maligned. Contrary to the Democratic version of history, America did not enjoy untrammelled influence abroad before he arrived. The country that won the cold war also endured several grievous reverses, notably Vietnam (where 58,000 Americans were killed””16 times the figure for Iraq). Iran has been defying America since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and North Korea for a generation before that. As for soft power, France has been complaining about Coca-Cola and Hollywood for nearly a century.
From this perspective of relative rather than absolute supremacy, a superpower’s strength lies as much in what it can prevent from happening as in what it can achieve. Even today, America’s “negative power” is considerable. Very little of any note can happen without at least its acquiescence. Iran and North Korea can defy the Great Satan, but only America can offer the recognition the proliferating regimes crave. In all sorts of areas””be it the fight against global warming or the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace””America is quite simply indispensable.
That is because America still has the most hard power. Its volunteer army is indeed stretched: it could not fight another small war of choice. But it can still muster 1.5m people under arms and a defence budget almost as big as the whole of the rest of the world’s. And it could call on so much more: in relation to the country’s size, its defence budget and army are quite small by historical standards. Better diplomacy would enhance its power. One irony of the “war on terror” is that Mr Bush’s hyperventilation worked against him in terms of getting boots on the ground: neither his own countrymen nor his allies were sure enough that they were really under threat. (And why should they be? An American-led West spent four decades tussling with a nuclear-armed empire that stretched from Berlin to Vladivostok; al-Qaeda is still small beer.)