As attention turns to the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, the United States must address an even deeper problem: how to deal with the tectonic shifts within the Atlantic alliance revealed by the diplomacy preceding the conflict. America's two strongest allies on the European continent, France and Germany, actively agitated around the world against a policy for which the American president was prepared to risk American lives. That schism tempted Russia to confront the United States more explicitly than at any time since the end of the Cold War. And this pattern is repeated in the controversy with these allies over the United Nations' role in postwar Iraq.

A continuation of these trends would involve the progressive erosion of the Atlantic alliance -- the centerpiece of American foreign policy for a half-century. The end of the Cold War and of a common threat had gradually undermined many of NATO's underlying premises. Nevertheless, for a decade the United States remained dominant by habit and momentum, while beneath the surface many in Europe chafed at the growing gap in military power and economic growth between the two sides of the Atlantic and at the new American administration's muscular assertion of the national interest.

The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks brought latent resentments to the surface under the banner of unilateralism vs. multilateralism. The initial solidarity based on America as a victim weakened when the United States gave the challenge a military cast by declaring war on terrorism. And it disappeared with the elaboration of a strategy of preemption. It was a strategy made necessary by security threats launched by private groups unrestrainable by deterrence (because they had no territory to defend) and inaccessible to diplomacy (because they sought total victory). These threats were compounded by the danger that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. But preemption ran counter to established principles of sovereignty that justified war only as resistance to aggression or the imminence of attack. However much that principle had been honored in the breach, some European allies resisted the implication that the United States could modify established principles by fiat.

But even granting that, in the emergency conditions after Sept. 11, the United States did cut some corners on consultation and seemed occasionally too prone to righteousness, the relish with which France and Germany challenged the alliance framework that had seen the West through the Cold War has deeper causes. For France and Germany to announce that they would vote against the United States in the Security Council was unprecedented in itself. But this was dwarfed by their intense diplomatic lobbying against American policy in far-flung capitals, ignoring a half-century of alliance tradition -- even going so far as to create the impression among East European leaders that cooperation with the United States in the war might complicate their entry into the European Union. With an attitude of almost gleeful defiance, the French and German foreign ministers invited their Russian counterpart, the erstwhile NATO adversary, to stand beside them in Paris while they publicly repudiated a top-priority policy of their longtime ally. It was a gesture straight from the playbook of 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu, who fought the then-potential superpower, the Hapsburg Empire, with a series of ever-shifting coalitions until Central Europe was divided and France preeminent. But this was before the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and when France still had the resources to back up its tactical ruthlessness.

Irritations over American tactics could not have produced such a diplomatic revolution had not the traditional underpinnings of alliance been eroded by the disappearance of a common threat, aggravated by the emergence into power of a new generation that grew up during the Cold War and takes its achievements for granted. That generation did not participate in the liberation of Europe during World War II or its reconstruction under the Marshall Plan. It remembers instead the protest against the Vietnam War and the missile deployment in Europe. In Germany, this generation is frustrated by apparently permanent economic crisis and a process of unification that has made many in the former German Democratic Republic think of themselves as occupied rather than liberated.

Gaullism, which insisted on a Europe with an identity defined in distinction from the United States, was not supported by a major European country until the Iraq crisis enabled President Jacques Chirac to recruit Germany -- at least temporarily -- into the Gaullist version of Europe. Chirac exploited Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's fear of isolation due to the rift with the United States over his pacifist and anti-American electoral campaign to lure Germany onto a course avoided by every previous chancellor, all of whom had insisted on reconciling differences between Europe and the United States. That diplomatic upheaval has split the European Union between states that seek European identity through confrontation with America and those, led by Britain and Spain, that see in it an instrument of cooperation.

These multiple schisms brought about at least a temporary reversal in Moscow. Coming to power almost contemporaneously with George W. Bush, President Vladimir Putin sought to navigate the catastrophic collapse of Russia's international position after the Cold War by concentrating on the domestic economy, and to fulfill Russia's residual Great Power status through demonstrative consultations with the United States, especially regarding Islamic fundamentalism.

The outward harmony, however, obscured for some Americans the painful experience through which Russia was living: the loss of its superpower status and the disintegration of its historical empire. While Russia had no alternative to acquiescing to its new weakness, it did so while gritting its teeth. Perhaps, had the consultations with the United States been more far-reaching and less focused on an American agenda, Russia might have found a degree of compensation for its diminished stature and been more reluctant to change course. As it was, the Franco-German offer of a united front against the United States over Iraq appealed to Russian nationalism and held out the prospect of new options not dependent on American goodwill. Six months after NATO expansion admitted three former Soviet republics, the Russian foreign minister could demonstrate the apparent hollowness of NATO to his own people by standing side by side with his French and German counterparts in a gesture proclaimed as symbolizing emancipation from American policy.

If the existing trend in transatlantic relations continues, the international system will be fundamentally altered. Europe will split into two groups defined by their attitude toward cooperation with America. NATO will change its character and become a vehicle for those continuing to affirm the transatlantic relationship. The United Nations, traditionally a mechanism by which the democracies vindicated their convictions against the danger of aggression, will instead turn into a forum in which allies implement theories of how to bring about a counterweight to the "hyperpower" United States. That would be a sad end to a half-century of partnership.

The debate over the postwar administration of Iraq illustrates these dangers. After a period of restoring security and searching for weapons of mass destruction, it is in America's interest not to insist on an exclusive role in a region in the heart of the Muslim world and to invite other nations to share the governance -- at first coalition partners, progressively other nations, and with a significant role for the United Nations, especially its technical and humanitarian organs. But the French proposal, tacitly supported in Berlin, that American presence in Iraq lacks legitimacy until endorsed by diplomatic processes similar to those preceding the war would magnify existing fissures. Postwar Iraqi reconstruction will have to recognize the desirability of a broad international base but also the imprudence of using multilateralism as a slogan and the United Nations as an instrument to isolate the United States and to delegitimize its military effort.

Too much has happened to prevent a return to business as usual. A revitalization of the Atlantic relationship is imperative if global institutions are to function effectively and if the world is to avoid sliding into a return to 19th-century power politics. And that revitalization must be based on a sense of common destiny rather than seeking to turn the alliance into an a la carte safety net. If common ground cannot be found -- if pre-Iraq war diplomacy becomes the pattern -- the United States will be driven to construct ad hoc coalitions together with the core of NATO that remains committed to a transatlantic relationship.

Before that happens, an effort should be made to put an end to the debate on unilateralism vs. multilateralism and to concentrate on substance. Our European adversaries in the recent controversies should stop encouraging the tendency of their media to describe the American administration as a group of Rambo-like figures thirsting for war and the United States as if it were institutionally an obstacle to the fulfillment of Europe's purposes rather than a partner in achieving common aims. For its part, American policy needs to close the gap between the overall philosophy put forward at the presidential level and the short-term tactics as the bureaucracy debates its implementation. In order to make the partners more predictable to each other, more intense dialogue is necessary, especially regarding middle-term objectives. And a vast agenda awaits: curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, addressing the political implications of globalization, speeding reconstruction of the Middle East. A discussion on principles that recognize the occasional need for preemption without enabling each nation to define it for itself is overdue.

These tasks need a basis beyond the Atlantic region. The German-French-Russian axis is likely to prove transitory. The calculations that led Putin to seek a close American-Russian relationship will remain and have already found expression in several recent statements by the Russian president. When the temptations of the Iraq crisis have passed, Russia will find these to have been a special case and Russo-American cooperation a major continuing interest. The challenge will be to give these convictions a reciprocal character less dependent on ad hoc consultations. A systematic dialogue on global issues must evolve.

The country that has altered its policy least under the impact of Iraq is the People's Republic of China. The unfinished processes of domestic reform and massive leadership changes have caused China to commit itself to a long period of peace and freedom from tension. In this manner, the country that many in the early days of the Bush administration considered a strategic adversary has the potential to evolve into a constructive, long-term partner.

American military preeminence is a fact of life in international affairs for the foreseeable future. Balance-of-power politics by allies cannot change that reality. But America can strive to translate its dominance into a systematic fostering of international consensus. If its European allies meet the United States in the same spirit, the debates over unilateralism and multilateralism can be kept from turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm.

(c)2003 Tribune Media Services International