For 50 years, the United States has pursued its foreign policy goals primarily through NATO, the United Nations and the rest of the international institutions built immediately after World War II.
But the open breach with the U.N. and several traditional North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies over an expected war with Iraq may signal the end of that system and the dawn of an age where the United States seeks to maximize its freedom from international constraints, analysts say.
After helping to build the post-World War II international system, Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of State, titled his memoirs "Present at the Creation." Now, many analysts on the right and left agree that the world may be present at the destruction of the intertwined alliances at the heart of that system.
"The Acheson world is in near ruins, I'm afraid," said James Chace, professor of international relations at Bard College and author of an Acheson biography.
"We are in a new era and things are up for grabs," said Republican strategist William Kristol, a leader among the neoconservative foreign policy analysts whose thinking has influenced President Bush. "If you want an analogy, we are present at another creation. That is always unnerving. It is always risky, but it can't be wished away."
In unusually candid comments Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney flatly declared that the international institutions and alliances "built to deal with the conflicts of the 20th century ... may not be the right strategies and policies and institutions to deal with the kind of threat we face now."
The broad ramifications of that conclusion aren't likely to receive much attention until after the seemingly imminent war with Iraq is completed.
But once the shooting stops, it's likely that the debate will intensify, at home and abroad, over the Bush administration's vision of how America should project power and advance its aims in the world. And, as Cheney's comments make clear, that debate may involve the most sweeping reconsideration of America's commitment to traditional alliances and multilateral institutions since Acheson's time.
The United States has banged heads with the United Nations and its European allies before, from President Eisenhower's intervention to force Britain and France to relinquish control of the Suez Canal to Egypt in 1956, to President Clinton's decision to launch the air war against Kosovo through NATO after Russia made clear that it would block U.N. authorization.
But many observers agree that Monday's decision to withdraw the British-U.S.-Spanish resolution that would have authorized an invasion against Iraq is likely to be seen as a much greater watershed than any of those earlier conflicts.
Critics see the resolution's demise as proof that the U.S. can't rely on the international body on matters of security. Meanwhile, leaders in many other countries are likely to question the United Nations' ability to set common rules of international behavior if the U.S. and Britain invade Iraq almost immediately after the Security Council refused to authorize war. Either way, it appears that the crisis will severely undermine the United Nations' authority.
In broad terms, that prospect is igniting a debate between those who believe the post-World War II international system has failed the United States in Iraq and those who think Bush, through his course in confronting Iraq, has failed the international system.
In the latter group are most domestic Democrats and the foreign leaders who accuse Bush of unnecessarily alienating the world by demonstrating a consistent disregard for international opinion on issues from global warming to missile defense to Iraq.
"We have succeeded in the past two years in making the dominant debate in the world not about terrorism, not about rogue states, not about weapons of mass destruction, but about American power," said Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council aide under President Clinton. "We are in a sad moment where much of the world does not trust this administration in how it uses the power that it has."
The prevailing view in this camp is that, while reforms in the United Nations or NATO may be necessary, American participation in such international institutions remains essential. Indeed, most thinkers in this group argue that the new threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will demand more, not less, cooperation in the years ahead. That will require the U.S. to strengthen international institutions, they insist.
Said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination: "Working through global institutions doesn't tie our hands -- it invests U.S. aims with greater legitimacy."
But as the push for Security Council authorization for war stalled over the last few weeks, the Bush administration -- and many leading conservative thinkers -- has grown increasingly explicit in questioning whether America should rely on those global institutions.
On Sunday and Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell insisted the United States has no intention of withdrawing from the United Nations. But administration officials from Bush on down have denounced the institution for failing to approve a second resolution explicitly authorizing force against Iraq.
In his appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press," Cheney took the hardest line: He charged that the United Nations has proved "incapable of meeting the challenge we face in the 21st century of rogue states armed with deadly weapons, possibly sharing them with terrorists."
Similarly, if less provocatively, Bush on Sunday said that while he believed "the wars of the 21st century are going to require incredible international cooperation," the United Nations had not shown it could "do its job."
In more immediate terms, administration officials say the failure of a second resolution on Iraq may make it less likely that Bush will seek U.N. authorization if he decides to use military force again elsewhere.
The conflict with the German government over Iraq could also give momentum to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's recent suggestion that the United States may seek to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Germany. And, especially with the vivid divisions within the European community over Iraq, it's likely to intensify discussions about the continuing role and relevance of NATO after the elimination of the threat from the Soviet Union that inspired it.
It's not even clear that the United States envisions much of a role for the international community in a postwar Iraq. While Bush said Sunday that reconstruction could be one way the United Nations "can begin to get its ... legs of responsibility back," the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the administration had developed plans to subcontract much of the postwar work in Iraq to private U.S. companies, minimizing the role for multilateral institutions.
All of this is long overdue to neoconservative thinkers inside and outside the government who believe the key to U.S. security in the post-Sept. 11 world is reducing restraints on the unilateral projection of American power.
Kristol said that while the United States cannot go it totally alone, "depending on the United Nations isn't an option, either." Instead, he argued, the United States should be willing to confront new threats with informal "alliances of democracies" like the "coalition of the willing" that Bush has assembled to fight Iraq.
On Sunday, Cheney not only identified with that line of argument, but added, "the only nation that really has the capability to deal effectively with those threats is the United States."