-- It should come as no surprise that many Germans would not welcome the message of the visiting American secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

On the pedestrian-only streets of Munich's historic downtown yesterday, couples walked arm in arm past elegant boutiques and narrow stores offering 100 different kinds of homemade chocolate truffle. Cathedral bells pealed through the snow. Skaters in an open-air rink twirled to the sounds of Tina Turner and the cheering smells of roasting chestnuts beneath the enduring walls of great medieval structures.

And here was Herr Rumsfeld to tell them that "the security environment we are entering is the most dangerous the world has known." This is a historic moment of testing for the world's free nations, he warned. "The lives of our children and grandchildren could well hang in the balance."

Who would want to believe such a thing? Life here does not seem dangerous. Life here is civilized. Iraq is far away. Between Rumsfeld, who addressed a security conference here yesterday, and the thousands of demonstrators against war in Iraq who were kept at a distance by 3,500 police officers, there may be many differences, but probably none more significant than the gap in perception of risk.

That gap in fact underlies many divisions that were sharpening as American and European defense and foreign ministers, generals and politicians gathered at an annual conference here: divisions pitting France and Germany against the United States; the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe against France and Germany; German politicians against one another; and, at least in rumored possibility, France against Germany, if France jumps into an anti-Iraq alliance at the last moment and leaves Germany weak and more isolated than it has been since its surrender nearly six decades ago.

The immediate source of tension was a NATO proposal to help Turkey prepare for a possible attack from Iraq by sending it Patriot missiles, AWACS planes and units trained to deal with chemical or biological attack. France and Germany have informally blocked such plans for days and were said to be planning to formally block them tomorrow. "Inexcusable," said Rumsfeld. "A terrible injury" to NATO, agreed Republican Sen. John McCain, also a speaker here yesterday. Clinton administration officials in the audience were equally scandalized.

The Turkey fight is a proxy for the larger disagreement over Iraq, which in turn fits into the larger clash of whether the world is in fact as dangerous as Rumsfeld argued. And on that subject, the defense secretary yesterday made as powerful a case as had his Cabinet colleague Colin Powell in the United Nations last week -- overpowering the opposition not with evidence this time but with logic. He was polite (no lumping of Germany with Cuba and Libya) but relentless.

"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but they're not entitled to their own facts," Rumsfeld said. And given the facts Powell had laid out, Rumsfeld argued that inaction is unacceptably perilous. A dozen years of U.N. resolutions, inspections and sanctions have not worked, he said; deterrence cannot work against "a terrorist state that can conceal its responsibility for an attack," as the sponsor of the 1996 attack against U.S. forces in the Khobar Towers remains concealed.

"The margin of error we once enjoyed is gone," Rumsfeld said. "The cost of underestimating the threat is increasingly unthinkable."

In the face of this assault, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's response was emotional and indignant but not persuasive. He accepted that 9/11 had changed everything, that Saddam Hussein is a terrible man; but the timing is wrong, he said, and other problems too great. Breaking from German to English, he addressed Rumsfeld directly: "Excuse me, I am not convinced." Later, back in German, he admitted plaintively to one possible reason: "It would be easier, of course, if all of this fit into public opinion," he said.

Other European leaders have sought to shape public opinion rather than bow to it or, like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, exploit it for electoral advantage. Rumsfeld was asked whether this dispute would prove a "watershed" in which "some European countries" proved more interested in opposing U.S. power than in fighting terror.

The defense secretary did not venture to guess. But if so, he said, "the likely effect would be that Germany and France would isolate themselves, rather than the United States." More to the point, governments that underestimate the danger will be proven wrong by history and "will ultimately be rejected by their people."

If Schroeder were to meet such a fate, there would be no condolence calls from the Bush White House. But as satisfying as their comeuppance might be in the short run for administration officials, an isolated Germany and France, or Germany alone, is nothing to be wished for. Add alliance repair and management to the difficult tasks on the administration's to-do list.

e-mail: fredhiatt@washpost.com