LONDON — Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has usually sided with the United States in global conflicts. Except for a few national exceptions, such as France’s criticism of the Vietnam War, trans-Atlantic solidarity has been the order of the day from the Cuban missile crisis through the Persian Gulf War.

Now, the prospect of a war with Iraq has — with the exception of Britain — fractured the foundation of mutual understanding on which the post-1945 system operated. With polls showing deep opposition to war, France is insisting that Washington give weapons inspectors more time and not act before getting a new U.N. resolution backing war, while Germany opposes any war at all.

It is possible, of course, that everything will be smoothed out in the end; that Washington will wait for a U.N. resolution that will satisfy Paris and that Berlin will keep quiet while London uses its influence to ensure that diplomatic channels are fully used before an offensive is launched.

But it is also possible that the war of words represents a turning point in relations between the leadership in the U.S. and the governments of some, if not all, of the country’s allies for the last half-century.

There is no doubt about the popular feeling. The proportion of Europeans who oppose war in the latest opinion polls is higher than that of Americans who support action with U.N. approval. In Britain, the support that Prime Minister Tony Blair has given to U.S. President George W. Bush risks splitting his Labour Party. In France, President Jacques Chirac has to reckon with the reaction of his country’s 5 million Muslim immigrants to war. Opposition to war proved a major vote-winner in securing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s re-election last autumn, and he is using it again as he tries to prevent defeat for his Social Democratic Party in two key regional elections next month.

But, beyond the immediate argument over how to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a deepening cultural difference is becoming increasingly apparent between the U.S. and EU. This was dramatically reflected when U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as representing “old Europe”; France’s finance minister immediately said he felt “deeply insulted” and the general secretary of the Germany’s Social Democrats charged that Rumsfeld does not understand Europe.

Hawks in Washington make no bones about their impatience with what they see as European attempts to put limits on America’s use of military power, contrasting the attitude of France and Germany with that of Britain, which sent troops to the Persian Gulf before the weapons inspectors made their report. For the hawks, it is all unhelpful posturing by European governments trying to punch above their weight in a world where only one country calls the shots. When the cards are down, there is nothing Berlin or Paris or any of the smaller European countries that want to avoid war can do to stop Washington. If the Bush administration decides to act unilaterally, there is no way it is going to be halted, except by failure in the field.

The contrast between an America that can act when it wishes and a Europe that can only talk is one element in the unraveling of the trans-Atlantic relationship — and it is no accident that the country that has maintained the traditional links, Britain, is the one that has always had the most ambivalent attitude toward merging with the European system. But it also echoes the wide gap in the way hardliners in the Bush administration sees the world and the more pragmatic approach adopted in Europe.

As Javier Solana, the former NATO alliance chief who represents the governments of the 15 EU states, has put it, the U.S. takes a religious view as opposed to the more down-to-earth attitude that history has bred in Europe. Washington sees itself as a force for good that is entitled to use its weaponry to destroy those it characterizes as evil. Europe, on the contrary, takes a more worldly view, seeking to avoid violent conflict and to use diplomacy to a degree that the more hawkish Americans regard as a sign of feebleness, denoting a failure to stand up and be counted in a battle between right and wrong.

Europe’s position is made more difficult because the lack of missionary fervor that characterizes its approach to the world is also apparent within the EU itself. The development of cooperation in Western Europe has has been one of the great achievements of postwar international politics. The 15-nation union is due to take in 10 new members in the middle of the decade as it expands into the former Soviet bloc. But, having agreed to that, Europe is not sure where it is heading: Should it become a vast federally run zone with a powerful central commission in Brussels, or remain an association of nation states, each safeguarding its sovereignty?

That issue is at the heart of a constitutional convention that is now meeting to map out the future of the community. But the Iraqi issue is putting a more immediate strain on the way the union works. Apart from the divergence between Britain and the two major players across the English Channel, the trans-Atlantic tension has again raised the question of who speaks for Europe. Is it Solana, the “high representative” of the governments of the member states, or Chris Patten, the Commission member in Brussels who handles external affairs. If either represented the majority view among the 15 members and came out against the U.S., where would that leave Blair — a supporter of Bush, but leader of an EU country. What would be the effect on the cohesion of NATO, which links North America and Europe?

Chirac and Schroeder have sought to get round differences between Paris and Berlin over a future European presidency by proposing a double system — one president chosen by the heads of government and a commission president elected by the European Parliament. This may have headed off a clash between federally minded Germany and sovereignty-proud France as the two countries celebrated the 40th anniversary of their friendship treaty this month, but it looks like a recipe for yet more confusion as to who speaks for Europe. The old question posed by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of who he should telephone if he wanted to know what Europe’s position, remains valid.

The reason for this is simple — while committed to a closer union, European governments do not want to give up their national power of decision. In a crisis such as that over Iraq, they want to be able to determine their own foreign policies. If there was a showdown in which they were forced to opt as a group for one outcome or another, the result could gnaw at the roots of what has been build up since the 1960s. Under the principle of each EU member having an equal vote, would London, Paris or Berlin agree to a system under which the union could be outvoted by a coalition of small states, particularly after the new members join? Contrast that with the single-mindedness of the hawks in Washington, and one can see the likelihood of a growing Atlantic divide and continuing lack of clarity in Europe, even if the cracks on Iraq are papered over.

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