LONDON — It is unlikely that the split over whether to go to war with Iraq will do Iraqi President Saddam Hussein much good, as U.S. President George W. Bush appears intent on unleashing hostilities however widespread the opposition to conflict. But it will certainly do the new world order which was supposed to have emerged after the first Persian Gulf War a great deal of damage, potentially terminal.

Important as the war itself is, the collateral damage being wrought on international institutions and alliances is even greater. With U.N. Security Council members disagreeing as never before, the United Nations is caught in the middle of the split between the United States and Britain, on one side, and the France-Russia-China-German group on the other. Instead of being the forum that brings nations together, it is the stage for a deepening divide sharpened by the intense lobbying of swing states in Africa and Latin America.

The half-century-old primacy of the veto wielded by permanent members of the Security Council is at stake, bringing with it possible serious consequences for the future. Washington’s doubts about the U.N. have been considerably reinforced. Though it is not in keeping with international political correctness, the crisis has thrown into stark relief the way in which small, undemocratic countries can, by the chance of the rotating seat system, determine the final decision.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been undermined by the row over whether it should become involved in war planning. The European Union is deeply disunited, putting paid to aspirations toward a common foreign policy. Its major figures in Britain, France and Germany, are at loggerheads. The EU’s two foreign affairs commissioners have been notable by their silence.

As if all of this were not bad enough, the integration into a united community of countries in East and Central Europe has been rocked. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised a storm by drawing a distinction between “old” and “new” Europe, deepening concern in some capitals that the former Communist countries may look to Washington for leadership and thus weaken Europe’s voice. French President Jacques Chirac of France has raised the stakes by upbraiding applicant nations that support American policy as if they should keep quiet to avoid upsetting France.

The vision that cast a warm glow over the turn of the century — that the planet would become an increasingly rich and harmonious place under the impact of globalization led by a benign superpower — is falling apart by the day.

With the world economy in a soggy state, stock markets slumping, widespread concern about everything from pensions to the environment, not to mention North Korea flexing its nuclear muscles, the world is in sore need of some reassurance and comfort. But the fallout from the argument over Iraq presents the prospect that the international order we have known since 1945 is about to become a thing of the past.

Though it did agree to go through the U.N. — partly at the behest of the British government — the Bush administration is clearly intent on doing what it sees as best for the U.S. whatever the rest of the world thinks. After its decisions on the Kyoto Protocol, the antimissile treaty, trade and the international war crimes court, this can be no surprise.

Indeed, the decision to go to the Security Council may end up strengthening the unilateralists in the administration if they can argue that it did Washington no good, and merely gave Hussein diplomatic breathing space.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is angry at France for having hardened its antiwar stance in a way viewed as serving the interests of international grandstanding by a president set on carving out an international position for himself. This is considered a betrayal of the unity reached at the end of last year when France voted for the first U.N. resolution.

In its religion-tinged, good-vs.-evil mindset, the U.S. administration is on a different wave length from those, led by France, who put a premium on negotiation. For Washington, force is not something to be shirked. For those in the other camp, it is something to be avoided at all costs. Trying to find a middle ground between those two viewpoints is virtually impossible, if only because, as the argument gets ever deeper, each side digs in its heels and dismisses the other out of hand.

That has put British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has seen himself as a bridge between Europe and the U.S., in a particularly difficult position, accentuated by a revolt against war within his Labour Party. He and other European leaders who back war cannot escape the high levels of opposition reflected in opinion polls. That risks creating a swell of antagonism that could spill out into other areas, for instance, by augmenting the discontent in Britain over the poor performance of public services and widening the rift between Blair’s market-friendly New Labour policies and the more traditional views of many members of his party.

The popular opposition to war in Europe highlights another way in which this crisis threatens the post-1945 order. The millions of people who have demonstrated against war in the past month have also been demonstrating against what they perceive as an arrogant, warlike American administration. As well as being against war, the marches in London, Paris and elsewhere have thus become, to a degree, aimed against the U.S., fanning a growing vein of anti-Americanism.

If, on the other side, the anti-European and particularly anti-French rhetoric heard in the U.S. translates into policy action, we risk seeing a far more fundamental trans-Atlantic rift than those that shaped up in the past over Vietnam, trade or the environment. The ultimate result could range from congressmen attaching riders to bills to ban French cheese to a major breakdown of the coming world trade talks in the Doha Round, as the U.S.-European argument on issues such as farm subsidies becomes caught up in a deeper nonmeeting of minds.

Having gotten only grief from going to the Security Council, America would feel that in other crises — for instance over North Korea — its best course was to take unilateral and preemptive military action with whatever coalition of allies chose to join it. Meanwhile, mainland Europe — or, at least, its major members — would be constrained from living up to the world role envisaged by Chirac’s by its relative lack of military strength.

The institutions, notably the U.N., which should act as the forum to achieve cohesion would have been devalued by the current crisis. Instead of a new world order, we would be back in a world where countries form temporary alliances in pursuit of immediate interests.

This may not be where we wanted to be, but it looks too late to turn the clock back. The hope must be that those national leaders most involved will feel sufficiently concerned to bring out the sticking plaster before it is too late. The fear must be that it is already too late and that the sticking plaster available is not strong enough.

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