How to disarm Iraq is the visible bone of contention before the United Nations Security Council Friday. But some nations also see this as a pivotal moment in the battle to curb the exercise of American power.
The underlying concerns about the use of force - which have kept a debate over Iraq going for months in the UN - could result in a formal and lasting split among major powers. And that, some experts say, could threaten the way the world has collectively addressed security issues for five decades.
"The UN itself is being tested in its ability to deal with international security issues," says Richard Solomon, president of the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "This is new territory for everybody," adds Walter Russell Mead at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
As chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix submits a new report on Iraqi cooperation Friday, the clash between the UN Security Council's two camps - the United States and Britain on one side, and France, Germany, Russia, and China, on the other - appears to be hardening.
The first clues as to whether a rift similar to the one now tearing NATO will formally divide the Security Council could come following the Blix report.
Another report issued this week by a UN-assembled panel of weapons experts found a new Iraqi missile that could travel 114 miles, a violation of UN limits. That may bolster the US position that Iraq continues to act in defiance of UN mandates and will not disarm peacefully. A tough report by Mr. Blix, incorporating the missile violation, could provide the basis for circumventing a Council split, experts say.
But Thursday, the positions of the two main camps showed no signs of converging.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he does not believe Iraq is in "material breach" of the latest UN resolution, using a diplomatic term for a condition that in international law would authorize the use of force. In response, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Iraq is in "further material breach" of UN resolutions. He also dismissed the French-German plan for beefed-up inspections as a signal to Baghdad that "defiance pays."
The decision by most of the key Security Council countries to send their foreign ministers to New York for today's meeting is another sign of the importance countries are giving not only Blix's report, but the long-term implications of the debate.
"France and Germany are saying that for now their highest priority is to block the United States," says Mr. Mead. "We don't really know how serious they are about this, but to some degree they are acting like the Atlantic Alliance is a thing of the past."
Britain is expected to introduce a new UN resolution next week to help solidify public support for disarming Iraq by force. But based on today's Blix report, it might conclude that such a resolution could not pass quickly, and Britain could give up on the UN and join the US in a "coalition of the willing" to wage war.
A successful British resolution - one that won a majority of votes from the 15-member council and suffered no veto from any of the five permanent members - would effectively close the Iraq debate. It would signal the rapid end of the inspections process by declaring in diplomatic language that Iraq is in such violation of UN mandates that the use of force is authorized to disarm it.
Opposing the Anglo-American stance with a plan favoring a virtual UN mandate over Iraq and a long-term disarmament program, are France, Germany, and Russia, apparently supported by China.
This week, France began circulating an alternative plan that calls for a doubling and even tripling of the number of inspectors in Iraq, with an enhancement of surveillance flights.
The French claim a majority of council supports the idea. The British are growing more guarded about the success of a second resolution.
The French plan, says a British official in New York, is "obviously a stalling tactic, but whether it will be put down more formally, we just don't know." British exasperation is growing, experts say. "[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair seems more ready now to go ahead without a resolution," says Mead. "He's furious at the French and the Germans."
Yet despite a certain sense of foreboding pervading diplomatic circles, scenarios for avoiding a prolonged impasse are also surfacing. For one thing, the cold shoulder that Iraq is giving the French-German plan for coercive inspections could open a path for a "rapprochement" among council members, Mead says.
A poor progress report for Iraq from Blix could also start to crumble the wall of opposition to disarming Iraq by force. "If Blix gives another tough report, it will be hard for anyone on the council to find that Saddam Hussein is not fatally defying" the UN, says James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mr. Steinberg says past experience suggests that powers like France and Russia would not act in a way to undermine the council's authority. But he says the NATO rift suggests countries are pushing old positions further now. "A week ago, I would have said there's too much at stake for the French to take things this far, that they wouldn't risk wounding the very institution they depend on for so much of their international prestige," Steinberg says. "But everybody's backed into a corner now, so maybe [French President Jacques] Chirac will say, 'I'm going to make a heroic stand here about the American role in the world and the supremacy of the UN.'"