Through the miasma of French posturing on Iraq, it is just possible to discern the contours of a coherent world view. This is not based, as the more spiteful critics say, on oil, or commercial interests, or even fears of domestic terrorism. It is in essence a challenge to the world order as we have come to know it in the decade or so since the end of the cold war.
Jacques Chirac, the French president, has hoisted a standard around which he expects much of the world to rally. Its emblem is not exactly anti-Americanism, but non-Americanism. It symbolises a belief that the unipolar world is an unsafe and unsettling one. America's economic, military and political supremacy cannot be regarded as essentially benign. What the world needs is an alternative pole that runs, it just so happens, smack through the middle of the Elysée Palace. Iraq is the turf on which Mr Chirac has planted his banner. The Russian, German and Chinese legions are rallying, uncertainly, to it.
Supporters of America, such as I, have to confront the painful fact that this view is not just that of the usual crowd of Americaphobes, but increasingly represents the consensus of European public opinion. Let us review what exactly this menacing unipolar world has brought us so far. I take it that all but the most virulently anti-American minds would allow that US leadership in the cold war was essentially benign, and indeed primarily responsible for the liberation of hundreds of millions of people. It was not perfect but, on balance, it was a superb example of resolve in the face of an unparalleled threat. But what about US behaviour since the end of the cold war? How has America exercised its unprecedented hegemony in the unipolar world?
There have been several conflicts. In every one, European critics attacked the US, sometimes for being too interventionist and, confusingly, sometimes for not being interventionist enough. All of them were successful, at least as judged by the little matter of whether or not the oppressors were stopped and the oppressed liberated.
There was Kuwait, where an opportunistic dictator became the first United Nations member to swallow whole a fellow member of the world body and was repulsed, thanks to a US-led response. There was Bosnia, where, after much European cavilling, firm US action freed a population from another tyrant. There was Kosovo - ditto. Then there was Afghanistan. You can quibble about it but for many Afghans life is transformed.
And then there were conflicts where US engagement of the non-military sort ended or at least arrested decades of bloodshed. Northern Ireland has moved further towards a peaceful resolution of its conflict than at any time in the past century, thanks in no small part to the diplomatic efforts of the US. India and Pakistan have been twice brought back from the brink of a potential nuclear war by the US using its muscle to enforce restraint. Of course, Israel-Palestine remains the great cancer in the world's political anatomy. But has any country worked harder than the US in the last decade to secure peace there? All in all, hundreds of millions of people have benefited from US engagement since the end of the cold war.
Now let us examine the record of those offering an alternative pole. Start with the French. The Balkans, as already noted, was not their finest hour. To that we can add an intervention in Rwanda that more or less paved the way for genocide. Nor has their role in Iraq for the past dozen years been glorious. If it had been left to the French in 1991, Kuwait would still be the 19th province of Iraq with, presumably, Saudi Arabia as the 20th. Since then, French policy has consistently undercut UN efforts to enforce its mandate. And we have other powerful examples of French leadership, which organisations such as Greenpeace could tell us about.
What about Germany? Its one big exercise in leadership in the post-cold war period was a clumsy and catastrophic diplomatic intervention in Croatia, which more or less precipitated the bloodletting in the Balkans. Its current idea of global leadership is complete abdication in the face of a dictator's defiance.
Russia? I suppose you could ask the eastern Europeans whether they fancy going back to a world in which Moscow represented the alternative pole to Washington. Or you could ask the Chechens whether their post-cold war experience makes them confident that Russia is a reliably benign leader. Or perhaps the Iranian people could say what they think about the efforts of a certain ex-superpower to supply material for the manufacture of nuclear weapons by theocrats.
Even some of those who accept this recent historical calculus will object that, with Iraq, it is different. Perhaps. But ask yourself whether you really want to side with those who believe the right way to deal with Iraq is to leave in power, indeed to strengthen in power, one of the ugliest dictators on the planet. Ask the Iraqis what they think of US imperialism. No, better, wait a few months when you will get a clearer, less constrained answer to that question.