As US troops ready for possible battle even without a United Nations mandate to invade Iraq, many of Washington's allies and partners fear that a war could shatter the 50-year-old foundations of their joint security structures.
If Washington proceeds without UN backing and NATO support, the network of international institutions designed to impose rule of law over raw power will be dangerously weakened, they warn. A war to topple Saddam Hussein without the UN's imprimatur "would create a very dangerous precedent" Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov said this week.
UN Security Council members remained split yesterday over a US resolution that would give Iraq until Monday to disarm, with France, Germany, and Russia yesterday rejecting British proposals aimed at breaking the deadlock. Meanwhile, the White House reversed its insistence that a vote would be held this week, saying that the diplomatic process could extend into next week - which means that the Monday deadline would also be put off.
European doubts about the wisdom of war against Iraq center on concerns for their future in a US-dominated world. "We want to live in a multipolar world, one with a few large groups enjoying as harmonious relations as possible with each other, a world in which Europe, among others, will have its full place," French president Jacques Chirac said in a television interview Monday.
At the heart of that world stands the UN, which President Bush has warned risks irrelevance if it does not follow up on its threats against Iraq.
That leaves the UN in an awkward spot, says Georges LeGuelte, an analyst at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "Either it adopts the US-backed resolution, in which case it will seem to be doing Washington's bidding and lose its legitimacy, or it doesn't and the US will ignore it, which will also damage its credibility."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday that "if the US and others were to go outside the Security Council and take unilateral action they would not be in conformity with the (UN) charter," which could be construed as a breach of international law.
Underlying the dilemma lies a fundamental difference of approach between the US administration and its European allies. "Multilateralism is a principle for us, but for the US, it is just one of many options," says Karsten Voigt, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's point man for relations with Washington.
Dwarfed by America's military power, neither Europe nor any other group of nations has such options at its disposal. They are frightened by Washington's new National Security Strategy, which asserts that no nation should be allowed to challenge US global power and primacy. "Their strategy talks about American citizens' security, not about freedom in the world," says Mr. LeGuelte. "The Americans cannot tolerate anyone limiting their military supremacy, and other countries cannot accept that. It means a return to the law of the jungle."
The thinly veiled threats that US diplomats have been issuing to Moscow and Paris, which have both indicated they would veto a UN Security Council resolution authorizing war in Iraq, are seen as a foretaste of the world that will emerge when the conflict ends. US ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow has roiled political waters there with an interview in the daily Izvestia in which he said that joint US-Russian programs in space, energy investment, and the war on terror would be endangered by a Russian veto.
"This is a mistake of American diplomacy," says Sergei Markov, a member of President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy advisory committee. "The Russian elite's attitude might be called critical mistrust, and I'm afraid Russian mistrust towards the US will be growing in the future." He hopes, however, that "the personal relations between our presidents will remain positive" because "in the unstable political world we are entering, much will depend on leaders."
That hope seems forlorn in the case of Germany, where US officials are furious with Mr. Schröder for what they see as his exploitation of anti-Americanism among voters to win reelection last year, and with France, where Chirac has cast himself as the leader of international opposition to US policy over Iraq.
European leaders still hope that once the war in Iraq is over, they will be able to put their differences with Washington behind them. "The transatlantic relationship is indispensable," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in a recent interview with the weekly Stern. In his TV interview Monday, Chirac was almost blasé about ties with the US. "Our relations and our friendship have deep roots going far beyond isolated events," he said.
Officials in Berlin and Paris point out that Germany and France have more peacekeeping troops in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan than any country but the US. Chirac suggested Monday that French troops would join in the Iraqi reconstruction after a war.
But the time it will take to heal transatlantic relations will also affect NATO's efforts to recast its role in a post-cold war world, observers say. When NATO countries invoked Article V of their charter immediately after Sept. 11, calling the attack on America an attack on them all, European members were disappointed that Bush did not call on NATO for the war in Afghanistan. "That was seen here as a rejection of European solidarity," says Jens van Scherpenberg, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Germany this week refloated the idea of NATO taking over peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan, an idea that Washington has rejected. "Changes in transatlantic relations do not mean it is necessary to turn away from the transatlantic alliance," says Mr. Voigt.
The damage done to international bodies by the Iraq crisis has also spread to the European Union, whose 15 members are divided over how far to support the US position, and where hackles have been raised by the way in which Central European candidate countries have backed Washington openly.
"One thing will not be forgotten" when the dust in Iraq settles, predicts Vladimir Handl, a European security analyst with the Institute of International Relations in Prague. "The development of a common European consensus on security and defense policy has been seriously undermined. Political trust has been broken, and relations will have to be repaired before the process can start over again."
• William Boston in Berlin, Fred Weir in Moscow, and Arie Farnam in Prague contributed to this report.