The US emerged as the single great power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The stunning post-9/11 events made the US flex its international muscles. But Thursday's announcement that the US is withdrawing the former administration's plans to build a new line of defense in Poland and the Czech Republic seems to signal that the US wants some breathing space.
No wonder. The financial crisis, the battle for health in America, the war in Iraq, the hornets' nest in Afghanistan, the relentless Israeli-Palestinian headache, Iran's and Korea's atomic ambitions, the mess in South America and a few other bugbears have seriously taxed US capabilities.
President Barack Obama, who came in on a 15-foot wave of optimism and expectations, now proposes a holistic plan to pacify the world - at least for a time. He still hasn't resolved all his problems at home.
And the new US concept in international relations says Russia has to be placated to allay its ambitions in Europe and in the Caucasus and to get its support on the dilemma of Iran, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has to be mollified to get the bomb out of the way for now and maybe get his help in dealing with Afghanistan.
In Cairo, Obama endeavored to propitiate the Arab and the Muslim world, to create a positive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and help pick a team to stand up to Iran - and not to press Israel too hard to get the conciliation with the Palestinians going.
Will this work? Russia has not abandoned its great power dreams. It wasn't only the abundant oil income that made Russia emerge from the post-Soviet doldrums. Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin has high-handedly done away with private interests that ran Yeltsin's administration and made his country reassess itself - at home and abroad. He made it clear he would not stand for the creation of a US-sponsored defense belt around European Russia. The West has now realized the clout that the Putin-Medvedev government might possess. And there are no challengers.
Obama's recent visit to Moscow put the finishing touches on the understanding announced Thursday. The Russians, on the other hand, have not followed through - yet. They have mustered a robust cooperation with Iran in industries, in technical assistance - including atomic station-building, arms supplies, trade and shared interests in the Caucasus - and most importantly, in buttressing Iran's position against the US and the West. It remains to be seen whether Obama's retreat in Europe might infer Russia's volte-face on Iran.
What few seem to realize in the West is the vitality and the capabilities of Iran, a 70-million-strong nation three-and-a-half time as big as France. Europe has important economic and political interests in Iran, with French cars being produced there and Germany and others deeply involved in trade. Russia and China are both strategically tied to Iranian good will and cooperation. With all its internal problems, Iran is entirely capable of standing up to outside pressure.
Iran cannot be bombed out, and a regime change cannot be imposed from the outside. In its long history, Iran has learned the art of diplomacy and dissimulation - and it has been practicing it in recent years. The Obama administration has discovered these vital facts and is attempting to revamp the US's stultified 30-year policy of holding off and unsubstantiated threats. America's new approach might be able to reshape Iran's policy closer to home.
Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel have been a crude attempt to promote Iran's interests in the Arab world. In any case, the "destroy Israel' tactic hasn't worked. Arab animosity has only increased. The "bomb" is a useful means of getting the West's untrammeled attention. The Iranians are intelligent enough not to atom-bomb Israel, even if they could - the price would be unbearable.
Today, Teheran would like nothing better than to "cooperate" with the US in helping solve problems in Iran and in the Middle East, ease the pressures on itself and gain unfettered access to America and the West. In other words, Iran is prepared to deal the cards - and the US wants to play, even if the chips are a bit high.
To come to the point: Obama has made it clear the US has had it with the "big stick" policy. It wants to speak softly. And see what happens.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the USSR and Russia (1989-1992) and a former head of political research at the Foreign Ministry.