Less than a month after a bruising international debate that exposed a broad gulf between the United States and many of its traditional allies, the Iraq crisis is again testing the ties that bind the international community.
Only this time, with a US-led war raging, the questioning focuses on whether the US or the United Nations is to be entrusted with administering a postwar Iraq.
And this time, as before, the debate really transcends Iraq and comes down to questions about the US, and whether the US alone or an international collective system will be the leading arbiter of security and power in the world.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to America this week to try to bridge the gap between the US and Europe. But with the US in no mood to bow to a UN it believes stymied its efforts on behalf of international security, and with much of Europe sticking by its opposition to the war, Blair came with very little to work with. "Blair has always claimed the role of the bridge between the US and Europe, but when the tectonic plates underlying those relations shift, it strains the bridge," says John Hulsman, a US-Europe expert at the Heritage Foundation. "Even with a war going on, this is not about Iraq at all. It's about differing views of US power in the world - and whether international institutions should be the countervailing power to the US."
A number of factors are keeping US-global relations tense:
• US accusations of Russian exports of sophisticated military materiel to Iraq.
• Disputes over disbursement of funds from the UN-administered oil-for-food program for humanitarian assistance in Iraq.
• Irritation over failure of the US to move more quickly on releasing an internationally agreed "road map" for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a conflict many see as key to winning the "hearts and minds" battle in the Arab world.
• Souring relations with Turkey over its refusal to allow US troops to use Turkish bases as a staging ground for the Iraq war.
These friction points have a common denominator of disagreement over the US role in the world that emerges from a defining war. "It is no longer really clear the Americans and Europeans see the world in the same ways or prefer to work toward the same global security systems," says Steven Miller of Harvard University's International Security Program. "The Europeans see a rules-based world ordered by various international organizations, while Washington emphasizes the exercise of its power and sees [the European vision] as incompatible with the dangers posed by the world we live in after 9/11."
The UN is at the heart of this clash. The US plans a postwar interim administration of Iraq that includes both military and civilian Americans, but which relegates the UN largely to a humanitarian role. That scenario is rejected by the UN Security Council, in particular by the French and Russians who hold veto power. Critics say the US plan would be widely viewed as an American colony in Iraq, a perception that could inflame the Arab and Muslim worlds.
At a Camp David press conference Thursday following his meeting with Mr. Blair, President Bush said the "form" of a future Iraqi government "will be chosen by the Iraqi people, not imposed by outsiders." Blair said the two leaders agree the UN will be "involved" in post-conflict Iraq, and that a post-conflict government must be "endorsed" by the UN. The two leaders also said the Middle East peace "road map" will be released "soon."
But already, the French and Russians in particular are holding up a restart of the UN's oil-for-food program with Iraq. Opponents fear such a move would place a UN seal of approval on the war.