LONDON — In a world of disorder, fluidity and shifting power centers, one factor has remained fixed and constant for all states, all governments and all national leaders: the supreme importance of relations with the United States, and how to handle them.

This is the foreign-policy issue that preoccupies Beijing; it is the issue on which Russian President Vladimir Putin ponders longest in Moscow; it is doubtless one of the issues at the top of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s in-tray as he sits at his new desk in Tokyo; and it is the uppermost issue in the mind of every European leader.

For four decades after World War II, it all seemed fairly straightforward. The U.S. was the chief guardian of the free world, and if a country did not want to be swallowed up by communism, it needed to stay as close as possible to the Americans. That was obvious for Japan, just as it was obvious for most Europeans.

For Europe, the relationship was expressed in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s vision of the twin pillars of an Atlantic partnership. The French might have had their lingering Gaullist legacy of anti-Americanism, but this was seen as a French foible that could be tolerated. The basic axiom was that Washington was the anchor and that the rest of the world should settle for American hegemony and enjoy the benefits.

The end of the Cold War altered the pattern slightly but not all that much. Russia ceased to be militarily hostile, and the Chinese started trying to open their economy. But the importance to everyone else of America, now the sole superpower, actually increased. Pax Americana still reigned, reinforced by surging American economic vigor, and most people were thankful for it.

But sometime in the 1990s, the tremors began and the ground began to shift. In Europe, the questioning began with security: Was the American presence in Europe quite so vital after all? Then it spread to money and trade: Should the dollar remain the world’s only super-currency? Should America’s views on trade issues always prevail? Was the so-called Washington consensus on world investment and commerce the right one?

For a while these seemed just debating issues — matters for diplomats and policy thinkers to chew over, but not much more. But quite suddenly the whole profile has been dramatically raised. Suddenly the tone of the trans-Atlantic debate has grown much harsher and the mood much more sour.

What has caused this shift? There can be no doubt that, while the issues have been rumbling for some time, it is the arrival of George W. Bush at the White House that has brought matters to a head. As long as President Bill Clinton led, most of the differences between Europe and the U.S. could be softened by the shared perspective between Europe’s predominantly center-left governments and the eloquent progressive and his team in Washington. But even in its first 100 days, the new Bush regime has changed all that. In Washington, a new, plainspoken realism has replaced all the fashionable phrases and the espousal of left-leaning global causes. Meanwhile, in the European capitals, ruling political opinion has dismissed the new American administration as a bunch of Texan isolationists, ignorant of world affairs. So the gap has widened on both sides.

In practice, this European parody of the Bush team could not be further from the truth. The new leadership in Washington is completely internationalist is outlook, but it is also worldly-wise. It is just not going to buy European arguments and assumptions without a whole lot of robust questioning.

Four contentious matters have taken center stage.

First, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration dislikes intensely the idea of a new European army. U.S. officials have made it crystal clear that they see this project as a threat to NATO, and one that would “inject instability” and weaken world security.

Second, this has become part of a wider Washington perception that maybe a united Europe — which successive American administrations have encouraged — is not such a good idea after all. A supportive “pillar” of an Atlantic partnership is one thing. But a rival bloc, or superpower, in Europe is quite another. If a protectionist-minded Europe is going to pick endless trade quarrels and pursue it own interests so narrowly, then America is going to lose interest and concentrate more on its own hemisphere.

Third, America wants to move on from the Cold War-shaped concept of mutual nuclear deterrence to meet the new threats of missiles from rogue states and new technologies of mass destruction. It finds European skepticism, allied with Russian hostility, increasingly frustrating, and it is not hiding the fact.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, is the abrupt Bush departure from the consensus on environmental issues. The president’s overthrow of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions has sent shock waves through the European policy establishment. The idea that the U.S. may put its own best interests, or its interpretation of them, first has done more than anything else to bring home the feeling of Atlantic division instead of Atlantic partnership.

All this is especially agonizing for Britain. All along, the British have been torn between their affection for the “special relationship” with the U.S. and their desire to be “at the heart of Europe.” So far they have just about managed to keep a balance between the two aspirations.

But the Bush presidency and the Bush style are both going to force some hard rethinking and re-balancing in London as well as elsewhere. For the British, as for every other country, the American relationship remains central, but from now on it is clearly going to get a lot more difficult to handle.

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