Euro-American relations have come to this: A small traffic incident can become a symbol of a geopolitical brawl. Recently the phone in my apartment in New York City rang early in the morning. When I picked it up, a European friend was yelling. "My daughter is in America! Her boyfriend was stopped by the police and locked in jail for 48 hours," he bellowed. "See? They started with Guantanamo and end up with a police state."

If this sounds like the ranting of a crazed friend, then lately it seems as though a lot of otherwise sober people on both continents are becoming unhinged.

"The United States is becoming a problem for the world . . . a factor of international disorder, fostering uncertainty and conflict wherever it can," writes the French author Emmanuel Todd in his book "Apres l'Empire" (After the Empire), subtitled "an essay on the rotting American system." Meanwhile, American commentator Robert Kagan muses that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash reads this as a sexual stereotype: "The American is a virile, heterosexual male; the European is female, impotent, or castrated. Militarily, Europeans can't get it up."

Whatever happened to the myth of the "Latin lover," one would joke, except that the issues are terribly serious. They go beyond Germany and France's declarations last week that they would oppose a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq if U.N. inspectors aren't given more time to search for horrible weapons. The real issue is that Europeans feel they have not been accorded the power they deserve in the international arena, while Americans largely feel that Europe is freeloading off U.S. military might. That is what makes the Euro-American duel so nasty.

This a heady, but challenging time for the small tribe of us who make our livings ferrying ideas across the Atlantic. Another friend, a literary agent in New York, moans, "I spend half of my time defending America with my European clients, and the other half defending Europe with my American clients." I know the feeling. I write a weekly column for Corriere della Sera, a newspaper in my native Italy. The column is called "Titanic," an acknowledgment of the dangers of communicating between the continents.

Euro-Americans relations are frigid. The cover story in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books is Garton Ash's essay, "America's Anti-Europeanism." The magazine's European twin, the Times Literary Supplement, has a cover story titled "Why the French Hate America," a long review by Henri Hastier of the BBC. Meanwhile, the Times in London and Le Monde in Paris published an essay by the master spy storyteller John Le Carre denouncing President Bush "and his junta."

It is common to attribute cross-Atlantic quarrels to cultural differences, different styles and ways of life. Most Americans do not watch European movies, and only a few French, Italian, German or Spanish novels are translated for the American market. We Europeans have different attitudes toward work and leisure. Others see the gap as mainly ethical, a conflict of two sets of values. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld criticizes "old Europe" -- the France and Germany that are saying no to war in Iraq -- while praising "new Europe," the former Eastern European countries that, after escaping Soviet domination, still value liberty and justice. Javier Solana, the European Union secretary of state, says that the clash is about "values," that Americans are "religious" while Europeans tend to be "secular."

Do not believe the hype. Culture is not a real issue. Our tastes are not so different. French and Italian intellectuals can make a fuss about McDonald's, and the Slow Food movement founded in Italy by Carlin Petrini has become a national fad. But even in the United States, McDonald's is selling fewer Big Macs. The percentages of Europeans and Americans who watch Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Woody Allen or the Cohen brothers are surprisingly similar. In both the EU and the United States, there are audiences for Pavarotti, Jennifer Lopez and Spike Lee. When I moved to New York as a young Fulbright fellow, there wasn't a single McDonald's in Italy and it was impossible to buy a decent bottle of olive oil or sip a warm cappuccino in Manhattan. Now the McDonald's in my hometown, Palermo, attracts hungry teenagers, but I dress my salad with the dark green olive oil produced in Palermo that's now available all over the United States. And I rate American cappuccinos the best outside the old country.

So the real matter is not culture or taste and, please, do not use values as a football. Take the fuss in Europe over the death penalty. Civilized Europeans read almost every week stories about the cruelty of the death penalty in the United States. A prominent Italian writer once told me, "I'll never visit the United States while the death penalty is in effect." Yet he did not apply the same principle to Spain, Portugal and France, all of which he visited while the garrote and the guillotine were still hard at work.

The two areas where Europe and the United States risk serious friction are geopolitical and ideological. The EU economic tiramisu might soon be bigger than the $10 trillion U.S. apple pie. Bolstered by its economic growth, Europe wants to be the new superpower, but Washington will share power only when the European economic giant becomes a military and diplomatic giant, too.

Right now, Europe doesn't fit that description. When Europe had to settle a minor issue between Spain and Morocco over possession of the barren island of Perejil, it took a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to cool heads. And when Slobodan Milosevic was running wild, Europeans did not intervene. Europe is aware that failing to rein in the Serbian czar when he was wreaking havoc in the Balkans was not only a geopolitical failure but also a symptom of a weak moral spine. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Czech President Vaclav Havel try to rally Europe's conscience with words like "reason often needs force," but however admired they are, their voices do not often prevail.

One diplomatic issue that does arouse European public opinion is the "favorite son" treatment that Washington grants to Israel. (Many polls show that anti-Americanism is fueled by the conflict in the Middle East.) Europeans want to try their hand at negotiating peace, but all they offer is: "Let's do what America is not doing."

It is not America's unilateralism that relegates Europe to the kids' table. It is Europe's budget priorities. Europe spends $2.50 a day on every cow that grazes happily on the grass of the EU. Yet defense spending lags. Andrew Moravcsik, a professor of government at Harvard University, estimates that "the United States spends five times more on military R&D than all of Europe." Europe's soldiers cannot fight beside their U.S. comrades-in-arms because they lack technology such as the AN/Pvs-7 night vision goggles; the U.S. Army has 215,000 of them. European forces have 11 heavy military transport planes; U.S. forces have 250.

The United States will accept Europe as a real equal when it sees muscle behind diplomacy. However much Europeans dislike Uncle Sam's war machine, they forget that Europe can't fight without it.

When Europe accepts its geopolitical responsibilities, the world will be a safer place. A real geopolitical rivalry will be healthy both for the United States and Europe.

If you look closely, you can see that both parts of the old Western world still have much in common. Globalization may be derided as a synonym for Americanization, but even anti-American protesters borrow from the United States. When kids in Florence took to the streets against the International Monetary Fund, they drew inspiration from the Seattle protests. Many rabid anti-Americans pepper their arguments with quotes from Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal.

Moreover, Europeans tend to view "Americans" as a monolith. In fact, many Americans share European qualms about issues. Sen. Ted Kennedy's speech against an invasion of Iraq could be an editorial in many European dailies. And when the majority of people in America say, "Attack Saddam only under the U.N. flag," they sound much like their European counterparts. Similarly, the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto protocols is vilified in Europe, but it also angers half of American voters.

So the real divide between Europe and the United States is about power and ideas. Europe wants a say in international affairs. True, America cannot solve any international crises alone. But the Europeans have to accept that no crises can be solved without the United States, either.

Rhetorical excesses -- such as the National Review Online editor's use of the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" to describe the French, and French author Todd's arguments against "America's predatory force," -- will fade. Perhaps then people will realize that liberty, tolerance, social justice, equality, freedom of speech and religious faith are precious commodities. Together the United States and the EU can preserve and spread them. In jockeying for geopolitical power, they risk forgetting this. It happened last Monday with the grotesque ascension of Libya to the chairmanship of the U.N. Human Rights Commission; the United States opposed it while Europeans abstained. Whoever wins the Free World Super Bowl, Europe and the United States risk losing their souls if they forget what our democracies stand for, or should stand for. Gianni Riotta is a New York-based columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and author of "Prince of the Clouds" (Picador).