EUROPE A Tapestry of Nations By Flora Lewis Simon and Schuster. 587 pp. $22.95

READERS OF Flora Lewis's columns in The New York Times will not be surprised to find her highly knowledgeable and readable -- about contemporary Europe in particular. She takes on the rather formidable task of providing a general European survey, one that tries to give full expression to the extraordinary diversity and vitality of the individual nation states -- but also notes the trends pushing toward a certain homogeneity and convergence of outlook. The aim dictates the structure. Each state has its own study. Her Europe of states, moreover, is not only west but east -- including the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Nor are northern and southern parts neglected. Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal and Greece are included, as are Austria, Ireland, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.

The result is a book divided into some 27 country studies -- each with its own historical background and contemporary portrait, along with a general introduction and conclusion and summaries of various regions. Each country has not only its own portraits, but is assigned to illustrate a more general topic. Thus, France illustrates the reign of intellectuals, West Germany postwar economic recovery, Italy terrorism and Spain nationalism confronting regionalism. Holland illustrates the welfare state. West Germany, exemplifying Europe's industrial revival, requires a rather awkward insertion about the Marshall Plan, Jean Monnet and the European Community. The discussion of German reunification has to be fitted into East Germany. The result is a book full of interesting observations and information, but also disjointed and uneven -- not, of course, unlike Europe itself.

The general introduction provides a breathless sketch of Europe's history -- from the Rape of Europa to the Common Market -- and sets forth three fundamental changes that govern the postwar situation: Europe's partition by the global superpowers; decolonization (the rest of the world's escape from European tutelage); and Europe's own postwar "drive for modernization to adjust to these two profound changes."

If Europe no longer rules the world, the author observes, the destiny of the world still depends on Europe. Since 1945, it has been the only continent without a war between nations. Everyone knows that war in Europe would probably bring about the end of human society; thus Europe continues to submit to its unnatural partition. But each generation feels more uneasy and resentful at "an unreasonable, illogical constraint of natural tides."

Postwar adjustment has been different in each country, but most different between east and west. In the west, the American tie has chafed but even European criticism of America is conditioned by a pervasive and "implicit sense of partnership in an ill-defined community called the Western world." Among themselves, the Western Europeans have achieved a profound consensus for moderation, remarkable considering their history. War is no longer acceptable among the states and intimate organized cooperation has become their daily way of life. Democracy has become the only legitimate model for domestic governance, its tenacity perhaps most remarkable in those relative newcomers to it -- Spain, Portugal and Italy. A "Europe which no longer rules vast parts of the globe . . . governs itself."

TWENTY-SEVEN country studies make a rich if somewhat indigestible meal. The marriage of a country with a theme works well in some cases, less well in others. Inevitably the bigger and more complex the country -- or the more the reader knows about it -- the less satisfactory any particularized focus or short sketch is likely to be. Perhaps for this reason, some of the most satisfactory chapters are about the smaller countries, or those less known in the United States -- Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Spain or Bulgaria.

Certain themes might have been stressed more: the marriage of convenience between France and Germany, the significance of the Common Market for Europe's national political economies, Prime Minister Thatcher's critique of the welfare state and its politics, the growing challenges to Europe's prosperity, or the deterioration of the military security borrowed from America. Perhaps the section on the Soviet Union suffers from being written too soon.

All this being said, the reader can learn a good deal. The conclusion flows naturally from the author's seasoned experience and cosmopolitan wisdom. As the world begins to look for new ideals and values to make sense of life in the next century, Europe is not an improbable place to find them. Europe's civilization remains, "fertile ground, seeded with great culture and mulched with the lessons of great pain."

After all the fashionable Europessimism and Eurobashing of the past few years, it is a relief to read a book that thinks Europe may actually be a force in the 21st century. Better still is a book that takes comfort from the idea.

David P. Calleo is a professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of "Beyond American Hegemony: The Future of the Western Alliance."