The enormous amount of chutzpah required for European Union leaders to fly to Baghdad and lecture the Iraqis on constitution-writing and consensus-building may never be quantified precisely, but it was readily available to Jack Straw and Co.

The foreign secretary of Great Britain, a country that has never written down its own constitution, headed up a delegation of European statesmen who went to Baghdad on June 9, slightly more than a week after the electorates of France and the Netherlands had voted down the draft E.U. constitution by overwhelming margins.

The Europeans discussed financial aid to Iraq and offered to train civil servants. Then, in a television interview, Straw urged the Iraqis to meet an Aug. 15 deadline for finishing their federal constitution and to take care to be "inclusive" by providing the Sunni minority with special privileges.

The proverbial man from Mars would be rubbing his eyes and wondering if the Europeans didn't go abroad to get advice rather than to give it. Our Martian would be wrong -- maybe they don't have chutzpah on the Red Planet -- but he would be on to something big in global affairs in this 24-7 era.

I don't want to take a thing away from the way President Jacques Chirac and his European colleagues mishandled the debate and votes on the E.U. constitution. They virtually dared their electorates to punish them for the continent's lingering economic and social problems, and the voters reveled in taking that dare.

But there is a larger phenomenon at work. Two powerful forces march in lockstep around the world today, redefining the nature of power and informed consent in industrial democracies.

One is the fragmentation of information and global comprehension. The other is the fragmentation of power.

We "know" more and understand less every day. Information is scattered into our brains in electronic shards packed into broadcast or Internet capsules that dissolve slowly and unevenly, if at all.

As a journalist, I naturally resist the notion that we can ever be too informed. Too rich, too thin, yes, those delicious-sounding contradictions may make sense. But only electronic Luddites could sense civic danger in information overload.

And yet citizens around the globe struggle with increasing difficulty to piece together some broad principles to make sense of the suicide bombings, distant government crises, violent protests that purport to protect the environment and help AIDS victims, and other dramatic events with which they are now instantly and intimately made familiar by omni-intrusive media.

And when they don't make sense of it, they take that incomprehension out on their leaders, producing the second and related force of change: Citizens increasingly resist concentrating power in governments that seem remote in distance and in manner. Chirac could have performed perfectly and would probably still have lost a referendum that centered on increasing the powers of supranational courts and other European institutions more and more disconnected from local politics.

The nature of federalism is different in the Third World, which is why Straw might have learned more about consensus-building and power-sharing by listening rather than talking on his trip to Iraq. Federalism -- the delineation of local, national and international powers that governments exercise -- is not an academic or courtroom exercise in places such as Iraq and Sudan. Federalism is now a question of physical survival in those nations.

John Garang, the southern Sudanese leader who has won an agreement from Khartoum that gives his region extraor- dinary autonomy and makes him vice president in a coalition government to be formed in July, made that point in telling fashion during a talk here earlier this month at the Center for American Progress.

When I asked Garang why the Khartoum authorities were any more likely to honor this agreement than the past autonomy accords they have signed and then torn up, he noted that this accord keeps the southern army intact and under southern command for the next six years. Then the south will vote to keep autonomy or declare independence.

In Iraq, the Kurdish minority is seeking the same kind of guarantee of federal recognition of its pesh merga -- or national guard forces -- in the new Iraqi constitution. Years of bloodshed at the hands of dictators have taught the Kurds to distrust strong central governments and to demand extended autonomy that they themselves can protect.

Constitution-writing in such societies is not a bloodless or abstract enterprise. All of us -- and perhaps Europeans most of all at this moment -- should resist the temptation to lecture Iraqis, southern Sudanese or anyone else about trusting in centralized, and centralizing, governments. There is not enough chutzpah to go around for that.

jimhoagland@washpost.com