WASHINGTON -- When the Democratic presidential candidates pause from beating Hillary with a stick, they join in unison to pronounce the Democratic pieties, chief among which is that George Bush has left our alliances in ruins. As Clinton puts it, we have "alienated our friends," must "rebuild our alliances" and "restore our standing in the world." That's mild. The others describe Bush as having a scorched-earth foreign policy that has left us reviled and isolated in the world.
Like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who insist that nothing of significance has changed in Iraq, the Democrats are living in what Bob Woodward would call a state of denial. Do they not notice anything?
France has a new president who is breaking not just with the anti-Americanism of the Chirac era but with 50 years of Fifth Republic orthodoxy that defined French greatness as operating in counterpoise to America. Nicolas Sarkozy's trip last week to the United States was marked by a highly successful White House visit and a rousing speech to Congress in which he not only called America "the greatest nation in the world" (how many leaders of any country say that about another?) but pledged solidarity with the U.S. on Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, the Middle East and nuclear nonproliferation. This just a few months after he sent his foreign minister to Iraq to signal an openness to cooperation and an end to Chirac's reflexive obstructionism.
That's France. In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder is long gone, voted out of office and into a cozy retirement as Putin's concubine at Gazprom. His successor is the decidedly pro-American Angela Merkel, who concluded an unusually warm visit with Bush this week.
All this, beyond the ken of Democrats, is duly noted by new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who in an interview with Sky News on Sunday noted "the great change that is taking place," namely "that France and Germany and the European Union are also moving more closely with America."
As for our other traditional alliances, relations with Australia are very close, and Canada has shown remarkable steadfastness in taking disproportionate casualties in supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Eastern European nations, traditionally friendly, are taking considerable risks on behalf of their U.S. alliance -- for example, cooperating with us on missile defense in the face of enormous Russian pressure. And ties with Japan have never been stronger, with Tokyo increasingly undertaking military and quasi-military obligations that it had forsworn for the last half-century.
So much for the disarray of our alliances.
The critics will say that all this is simply attributable to the rise of Russia and China causing old allies to turn back to us out of need.
So? I would even add that the looming prospect of a nuclear Iran has caused Arab states -- Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, even Libya -- to rally to us. All true. And it makes the point that the Bush critics have missed for years -- that the strength of alliances is heavily dependent on the objective balance of international forces, and has very little to do with the syntax of the U.S. president or the disdain in which he might be held by a country's cultural elites.
It's classic balance-of-power theory: Weaker nations turn to the great outside power to help them balance a rising regional threat. Allies are not sentimental about their associations. It is not a matter of affection, but of need -- and of the great power's ability to deliver.
What's changed in the last year? Bush's dress and diction remain the same. But he did change generals -- and counterinsurgency strategy -- in Iraq. As a result, Iraq has gone from an apparently lost cause to a winnable one.
The rise of external threats to our allies has concentrated their minds on the need for the American connection. The revival of American fortunes in Iraq -- and the diminished prospect of an American rout -- have significantly increased the value of such a connection. This is particularly true among our moderate Arab allies who see us as their ultimate protection against an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis that openly threatens them all.
It's always uncomfortable for a small power to rely on a hegemon. But a hegemon on the run is even worse. Alliances are always shifting. But one thing we can say with certainty: The event that will have more effect than any other on the strength of our alliances worldwide is not another Karen Hughes outreach to the Muslim world, not an ostentatious embrace of Kyoto, or even the most abject embrace of internationalism from the podium of the UN. It is success or failure in Iraq.