WHO are Britain's best friends? As fighting in the Gulf neared the end of its second week, the question was being asked at the highest reaches of government.
``In theory, they should be the Europeans,'' a senior minister said. ``Instead, once again we are finding that when push comes to shove, it is still the American connection that counts.''
Members of the European Community had been at best ``reluctant partners'' in the challenge to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and at worst ``next to useless,'' the senior minister says.
Britain's search for international perspectives has been going on for at least four decades - well before Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, declared that the country ``had lost an empire and failed to find a role.''
The senior minister quoted above is among those who see the way ahead requiring that Britain be firmly lashed to a united European movement. He would like to see the Twelve adopt a common foreign policy. But reality points in another direction.
Attempts by the EC to muster its own peace mission to see Saddam got nowhere. Apart from Britain - which has its own oil and could do without any from the Gulf - only France among the EC nations has contributed troops and planes to the Gulf fighting in significant numbers. The Belgian government even refused to sell the British Army shells for its tanks in Saudi Arabia.
Germany, which depends heavily on Gulf oil and is prevented by its Constitution from sending troops to the Gulf, by the weekend had contributed only $1 billion to the coalition's war chest - barely enough to pay for a few days' ammunition.
A study by the Center for Defense Studies at King's College, London, estimates that an eight-week war in the Gulf could cost Britain $10 billion - unless the Twelve respond favorably.
``What Europe has done so far is very, very feeble indeed,'' is the judgment of Alan Clark, Britain's minister for the armed forces and a distinguished war historian.
The immediate problem facing Prime Minister John Major, Mr. Clark believes, is to try to persuade the EC nations to do much, much more.
Longer-term, the dilemma for Britain is that while Europe ought to be its context for developing a world role for the 21st century, the United States continues to seem a friendlier, more instinctive partner. That is odd if one recalls the early days of the Bush administration.
Then Germany looked as though it was America's most important friend in Europe. With George Bush instead of Ronald Reagan to contend with, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was widely thought to have her work cut out preserving the ``special relationship'' between London and Washington.
And yet her successor finds himself regarded in the Bush White House as one of America's firmest allies just when a united Germany appears self-absorbed and unwilling to pull its weight in a common struggle.
Disenchantment with the rest of Europe is running deep in Britain.
The Sunday Express, which speaks for much of ``middle England,'' said in its editorial last weekend: ``Never before have Europe's pretensions to political strength been so cruelly exposed. Never has Britain's contempt for the empty rhetoric of unity been so solidly vindicated.''
Thus the British quest for a world role continues, with Europe looking like a fair-weather friend, and America still beckoning as a natural partner.