A FLURRY of diplomatic activity - highlighted by a surprise British proposal for strengthening Europe's role in its own defense - is demonstrating the extent to which the issue of defense and security is dominating political dialogue in Europe.Rapid changes across Europe - including such events as Moscow's failed coup and the civil war in Yugoslavia - are one spur for the dialogue. Another is the approach of two crucial summits that are likely to establish the foundation of Europe's defense and security structure for at least the next decade. Yet neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's November summit in Rome nor the European Community's December summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, is likely to paint a clear picture of future European defense and security arrangements. The confusion and ambiguities of recent proposals and counterproposals will not clear up soon, analysts across Europe say. NATO is not about to close up shop, but many officials and analysts here see a declining role for the Alliance in safeguarding European security. What remains unclear is whether the European Community (EC) will be prepared to pick up the baton any time soon. "The general trend for NATO is clear," says Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Pointing to Yugoslavia, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and mounting nationalism, he says the Alliance is unadapted to the kinds of problems it now has to deal with in security terms. "What is not so clear is the role the Community will be able to play. It's political ascendancy is far from being a given." A number of European officials and analysts see positive signs for a move toward a defense role for the EC in a British-Italian proposal unveiled last week. The two countries call for development of a "European defense identity" by strengthening the Western European Union (WEU), a defense organization composed of 9 of the EC's 12 members. Under the proposal, the WEU would develop a rapid reaction force for peacekeeping or other intervention in areas of Europe outside NATO's mandate. A central point, however, is that close links with NATO would be maintained. This last point is anathema to the French, who also want to strengthen the WEU, but as a European defense pillar outside NATO oversight. Still, a number of supporters of an EC defense role see good news in the proposal. Spanish Foreign Minister Francisco Fernandez-Ordez says it signals Britain's acceptance of an eventual EC defense policy. The proposal "does indeed offer the perspective of a defense dimension to the Community," says a British official. Acknowledging this constitutes an evolution in British thinking, the official says the EC "does in- creasingly coordinate its foreign policy. It's a good idea for there to be a defense body to which they can transfer their conclusions." But the proposal is one aspect of the divergent thinking in the Community two months before its summit at Maastricht, where accords on increased economic union and political integration are to be signed. "We in the Community are today deeply split, and that does not make things look good for a deeper political role including some security dimension," says Angelika Volle, a senior research fellow at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn. EC discord over political union and its defense and security dimension has been accentuated by Friday's meeting in Paris between French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The French want to anchor German support for developing the WEU as a European defense organization integrated into the EC and outside NATO's shadow. Unconvinced the British proposal includes any progress for Europe and unhappy to see it under joint authorship with the pro-European Italians, Mr. Dumas last week invited EC foreign ministers supporting an independent European defense role to his meeting with Mr. Genscher. But this week France has played down the meeting's significance to dampen criticism that it would harden an EC rift. Still, Germany's position remains crucial, and the ambiguity of its recent actions has other Europeans nervous. The French are worried about last week's call by Genscher and United States Secretary of State James Baker III for closer ties between NATO and Eastern Europe. They fear the idea reflects Germany's growing political interest in Eastern Europe. Friday's talks will be closely watched by the British. "They have us slightly nervous," says the British official. "The Germans have a key role to play, and we support some of their ideas. The problem is that when the Germans and the French get in the same room, the Germans have a habit of backing down." Analysts say the highly disparate views so close to the Maastricht summit mean that at best the outlines of some nascent EC security role will be adopted. "With so much change, there will be no finality to either Rome or Maastricht," says Frric Bozo, of the French Institute for International Relations. The French say they will be satisfied with agreement on "principles and stages," and a calendar for adopting them. Still, Europe's long-term evolution suggests a growing security role for the EC, says Mr. Bozo. "Despite the criticism, the Yugoslav crisis suggests the EC can stick together, but that it needs the powers to go farther. NATO's inability to become involved in that crisis and the unwillingness of the US to take it up points the way."