LONDON — Despite the failure to gain backing from the United Nations, the war on Iraq has brought together a growing “coalition of the willing,” as Washington dubs those who support the attack on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It may have few active military members — the United States, Britain plus smaller contingents from Australia and Poland. But it has gained in diplomatic numbers as Washington showed its power with its air attack on Baghdad, the impact of which was heightened by being broadcast live on television around the world.

The emergence of this coalition — and of the opposing “coalition of the unwilling” led by France — is a significant portent of the way international affairs are being reshaped, which is going to require significant rethinking on the part of governments. Instead of alliances, we are now entering a world of shifting coalitions, whether over Iraq, world trade or the development of major regions.

The way in which the Western alliance held together for so long after the end of World War II has tended to obscure the fact that, historically, major nations have preferred to form coalitions rather than commit themselves to long-term alliances. This is not surprising given the way that, however lofty the aspirations they proclaim, governments invariably are unwilling to bind themselves to agreements that may restrict their ability to pursue their own best interests.

The coalitions that came together in the early part of the 20th century — between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one hand and France, Britain and Russia on the other — provided the framework for World War I. The same was true of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis formed in the 1930s, though the opposing coalition of London, Moscow and Washington took more than two years to be established after the outbreak of war in Europe. It took the extreme conditions of the division of the globe after 1945 and the nuclear confrontation between Moscow and Washington to produce two of the longest-lived alliances of modern times: the NATO alliance of democracies and the Warsaw Pact of nations in the Soviet sphere of influence.

From the historical point of view, the formation of one coalition has often spurred the creation of an opposing one, as we have seen this year with the attempt of Paris to realize the old Gaullist dream of a group centered on France that would act as a counterbalance to American world power. But the reality has always been that the coalition that appears most powerful attracts the most members, or, at least, leads others to adopt a pose of nonthreatening neutrality.

The difference between the past and today’s “coalition of the willing” lies in what was seen last week. American and British leaders have been careful to refer to the forces in action in Iraq as “coalition forces” — if only to imply that this offensive is far more widely based than the presence of troops from only four nations would indicate. But even within the coalition army and air force, it is plain that the combination of overwhelming and precise weaponry that has been wielded to seek to stun the Hussein regime into surrender is primarily American.

In World War II, the U.S. may have contributed the largest slice of money and modern equipment, but the Soviet Red Army put more men into the field, and the British contribution, though smaller, was still significant. On the other side, Japan’s military role in the Pacific equaled Germany’s in Europe. But the present coalition is an extremely lopsided affair.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has played a valuable diplomatic and political role, and has, above all, shown that Washington does not stand alone. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made plain, if London chose not to fight, Washington could have — and would have — gone ahead on its own. Australia has just 2,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region.

The extent of American power means this will be the case again if U.S. President George W. Bush decides on further preemptive action against countries that he views as a threat to America. In which case, Washington may welcome support from a coalition of other powers, but will not regard it is any more of a necessary condition for action than it was in the case of Iraq.

For their part, the members of the two current coalitions — for and against the campaign against Hussein — may take a different view if it comes to waging war on another country, unless France manages to wield together a group of nations that will oppose the exercise of American military power in virtually all circumstances.

Many governments will be faced with a new and awkward choice. By fixing themselves to one coalition, they risk suffering reprisals from the other. Opponents of the war in Iraq may, for instance, find the U.S. showing little concern for their interests in the Doha Round of trade talks, while French President Jacques Chirac has already raised the question of how welcome East European governments that backed Bush will be in the European Union.

Some opportunistic governments may seek to bargain their support for aid or other advantages. But this is not likely to get them very far, as the disinclination of Washington to continue to try to win over the six “swing states” on the Security Council indicated. Instead, smaller powers and those that would like to take a low profile in world affairs will have to decide where they stand in a way that they would probably prefer to avoid.

If the France-Germany-Russia-China group emerges from the present crisis as the kind of entity of which Chirac dreams, that is only likely to stiffen Washington’s already considerable resolve. North Korea could well be the next testing ground, with huge implications for Japan. The basic problem for the “coalition of the willing” will be — as it is at present — that it can do nothing to stop U.S. military action. Diplomatic pressure has shown its limits this year, and there is no way in which France would seek to deploy armed force to halt, say, an American threat on Iraq.

But siding with Washington in the current context brings with it the downside of knowing that, while supportive voices will always be welcome, the administration is going to continue on its chosen path come what may. That puts a rather different, and less attractive, complexion on the concept of the “coalition of the willing.” But it is a reality with which the world outside the U.S. will have to grapple in the years ahead. This return to the past will present stark choices of a kind that the Bush administration appears to relish, but which many other countries had hoped were a thing of the past, and which could significantly affect the domestic political landscape in countries across the globe.

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