ROME -- The leaders of Western Europe assemble here this weekend for their first summit meeting since Iraq invaded Kuwait and smeared an ugly swatch of reality across the Technicolor production entitled "Europe." The Persian Gulf crisis has revealed that "Europe" still has not made fundamental decisions about a future that was being taken for granted only a few months ago.

The euphoria about the European future triggered by the splintering of the Soviet empire and the winding down of the Cold War is fading. A more sober assessment of power realities in a changed-but-still-dangerous world is taking root.

This mood change was almost palpable during a two-week swing through London, Paris and Rome. Here in the Italian capital, a conference on Europe's future included discussions with influential German business executives and academics about the clear need -- and the fuzzy plans -- for the European political future.

The Gulf crisis shows that the 12 European Community nations are still incapable of defining their common foreign-policy interests clearly and concisely enough to act together to protect and promote those interests. It has also demonstrated the need to do just that.

Saddam Hussein's brutal grab for regional power and the global response to it force open consideration of a previously unspeakable question: Who will dominate the new order of nations, and how? This is the question, hidden under heavy veils, that will drive the high-level diplomacy and big-power politics of the coming months.

For a brief spell earlier this year, the very idea of "domination" seemed on its way to becoming obsolete. Many were confident that NATO would wither away after the Warsaw Pact dismantled itself. Cooperation would replace power as the organizing principle of European relations and was to be enshrined at the 35-nation summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Paris in November.

Today the CSCE summit risks becoming a pseudo-event: a meeting at which nations will comment on history rather than shape it. German unification has occurred without CSCE. The Soviet army is retreating more rapidly from Eastern Europe than the arms-control agreement it will sign in Paris requires. Iraq's annexation of Kuwait has shown the emptiness of fraternal assurances and regional secretariats in security terms.

Two European Community summits to be held in Rome before the end of the year and behind-the-scenes negotiations to produce a transatlantic treaty or declaration by EC nations and the United States could turn out to be more meaningful than the summit.

These talks should involve serious discussion of how the Atlantic community is going to organize for a very different future, in which threats to global stability are as likely to come from poor nations of the South as the East.

Most striking in all this has been the absence of Germany in setting the new European agenda. Instead of demonstrating economic and political dominance over the EC, united Germany has found a series of excuses to stand aside from President Bush's strong response to Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and from Britain's and France's separate military commitments to the same cause.

Britain's Margaret Thatcher has used the Gulf crisis to revitalize the special relationship between Washington and London, committing British troops to follow Bush's lead, whatever it is.

France's Francois Mitterrand has acted similarly and pretended not to; he has preempted domestic political problems by sounding dovish and emphasizing that France's troop commitment does not involve taking orders from American commanders. But French officials say that when the balloon goes up, French troops will play a strong supporting role in the American-led military response to Saddam's invasion.

"How long will Europeans go on in an incoherent manner?" asks senator Jean Francois-Poncet, the most astute of France's centrist political leaders. He goes on to explain why a coherent Europe will help rather than hinder America's role in the new order.

"A united Europe would not feel that acting with the United States is somehow inadmissible. If we sent 40,000 Europeans under a single command rather than the separate contingents of British, French and other troops, that would certainly have more impact. That would be a Europe that the United States would deal with as an equal partner," says Francois-Poncet.

This is a different debate from the one about burden sharing, which degenerates quickly into an irrational argument about Europeans and others putting more resources under American control for American-decided goals. The newly sharpened debate is about how Europe builds its own security consensus and then links it firmly to America's continuing global power.

Saddam's destruction of Kuwait is making Europeans realize how urgent and difficult this task is. Adopting CSCE guidelines and writing scripts about "Europe" will not get it done. By driving this home, even the Saddam cloud has a silver lining.