Asked if he felt indebted to Russia for helping crush the Hungarian uprising of 1848, the Austrian prime minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, replied, "Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude." In the annals of diplomatic cynicism, no statement is more bracing and more instructive.

Schwarzenberg was no original, however. He was merely restating with savage candor Lord Palmerston's famous adage that "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual."

This kind of coldbloodedness in diplomacy is common in the Old World. It reflects the view that in the state of nature that is the international arena, sentiment is a luxury only the very strongest can afford, and that like the other private virtues -- selflessness, faith, trust -- it has little place in the life of nations.

This cynicism is a source of continual surprise to Americans. We spent 78 days bombing Serbia, a country with which we had no quarrel, because of its nasty treatment of Albanians. Having rescued the Kosovar Albanians, we expected them to behave decently toward their neighbors -- if not out of common humanity then at least out of deference to NATO wishes and ideals.

Dream on. Instead, the returning Albanians proceeded to show us who is the real boss in Kosovo. Embittered by their own persecution and emboldened by Serbia's defeat, some Kosovo Liberation Army elements began terrorizing Serbs and Gypsies, firing on peacekeepers and resisting NATO efforts to form a new, tolerant, multiethnic Kosovo. Not surprisingly, 80 percent of Kosovar Serbs have fled.

Reverse ethnic cleansing was not the intent of NATO's campaign. Said one international official, "The KLA seems sometimes to forget who won the war for them."

Well, some forget. Others deny. "We didn't receive help from anybody. . . . Mostly they [NATO] hit the wrong things," asserted a young Albanian to a visiting journalist.

But the KLA is doing what all winners do: reassess the usefulness of their allies. It is what Vietnam did to China after the Americans had been defeated in the Vietnam War. It is what China did to Russia after the Nationalists had been defeated in the Chinese civil war. It is what Russia did to the West (and vice versa) after the Nazis had been defeated.

Gratitude? Humbug. The Kosovars want independence. They needed NATO to get rid of the Serbs. Now they need to get rid of NATO to get what they want. It is very simple and very predictable.

And very distressing to Americans. The Clinton administration, for example, has been keeping North Korea alive with free shipments of fuel and food for years. The administration is then perpetually dismayed at North Korea's in-your-face responses, from breaking up painstakingly prepared peace conferences to selling and firing ballistic missiles.

Similarly with China. The Clinton administration, indisputably the friendliest to communist China of any administration in American history, is continually being rocked by the truculence of Beijing's actions toward Washington. Here is a president who permits the transfer of high technology to China, makes a groveling nine-day visit and commits the United States to China's hard-line position on Taiwan. And what does he get in return? Obstructionism on Kosovo, Iraq and North Korea. Ostentatious human rights crackdowns. Overt military threats against Taiwan. And, after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, rock-throwing at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing by government-organized mobs. Ah, gratitude.

But why should the Chinese be any more deferential than the French? Twice in this century, the Americans bailed them out from defeat and disgrace. Our reward? A gleeful finger in Uncle Sam's eye. For the past 50 years, a principal objective of Gaullist foreign policy has been to diminish -- counterbalance is the more polite word -- American power. From playing footsie with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, to denying French airspace to American planes raiding Libya, to overt attempts to rehabilitate Iraq and undermine American policy in the Gulf, the French have made of ingratitude -- as of most things in life -- an art.

When in 1966 de Gaulle ordered France out of NATO and American troops off French soil, Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked him if that included the American soldiers lying dead in the cemeteries at Normandy and throughout France.

Mais non. They stay, a monument to American generosity, and to a world of transient friendships and permanent interests.