This is over a year old, but Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth have written a very interesting (draft) paper
asking whether other countries are engaging in "soft balancing" against the United States. Prior to the Iraq war, many liberal analysts worried that too much unilateralism from America would provoke other nations—especially Europe, China, and Russia—to start banding together and counterbalancing that loud, honking hegemon across the Atlantic. U.S. conservatives, meanwhile, viewed France and Germany's opposition to the war as stemming from a desire to constrain American power. On this view, what started as "soft" balancing—a bit of stubbornness at the Security Council—would soon lead to hard opposition. As Bill O'Reilly said on the Daily Show just a few nights ago, "France is the enemy!"
So is this true? Brooks and Wohlforth say probably not. It's hard to distinguish, granted, between explicit "balancing" and normal moves made by other countries, for reasons of their own, that just so happen
to inconvenience or hurt the United States. But real "balancing" would mean that Europe and Russia and China were taking moves that are only
coming about because the United States is the pre-eminent power in the world, and they fear that; moves they wouldn't pursue otherwise.
This probably isn't the case. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder opposed the Iraq war partly because they genuinely thought it was a bad idea, quite rightly, and partly because opposition was popular domestically. Likewise, Russia's recent "strategic partnerships" with India and China may look menacing, but they aren't really intended to counter U.S. power in any meaningful way. (All three countries are pursuing economic modernization, and since that entails working with U.S.-controlled financial institutions, they still need to cozy up to the hegemon.) Meanwhile, Russia's recent arms sales to India and China, along with its support for Iran's nuclear program, mostly stem from its desperate need to slow the rapid decline of its defense sector, which is in a bad way. That's why Vladimir Putin can call nuclear proliferation the "main threat of the 21st century" and still fund the Bushehr reactor in Iran. He's sincere about the former, no doubt, but that reactor contract means 20,000 jobs at home.
The EU's proposal for defense cooperation, meanwhile, is meant to complement, not counter, American military power. Again, people like Chirac may say otherwise for public consumption at home, but in reality, the EU is actually weakening
its ability to balance against the United States—by foregoing investment in advanced defense technology—in order to create a rapid reaction force that can help the U.S. by dealing with Balkans-style problems. Given that the U.S. and the EU are currently working together on Iran, it's obvious that their interests are mostly aligned.
In short, people like O'Reilly are wrong. No one's balancing against the U.S.; not yet. Though it still seems that the U.S. should avoid unilateralism when possible, because ill will makes cooperation on other issues difficult. Also, notice that France and Germany have a serious dilemma here. The more that they use the language of balancing—the more that they talk about "checking American power," even when they obviously intend to do no such thing—then the more the U.S. will discount their specific objections to policies. Chirac and Schroeder may have had good reason to believe that Iraq was a flawed idea, but U.S. policymakers were inclined to dismiss their objections as knee-jerk anti-Americanism. That's bad. Likewise, if U.S. leaders believe that, say, France and Germany want to work through international institutions only in order to check American power, then the U.S. will be less likely to pursue multilateralism.