Even before it is played out, the Iraq crisis is having a profound effect on a debate within NATO over how the Atlantic security partnership should define its strategic interests for the next century.

While European allies have closed ranks behind the United States in the latest showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, there are lingering apprehensions among NATO governments about the Clinton administration's insistence on recognizing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as the alliance's most urgent priority.

At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers here two months ago, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright pointed to the looming fight with Iraq and declared that banishing the weapons of mass destruction of rogue states should become the new "unifying threat" that binds Europe and the United States in the post-Cold War era.

Albright cited weapons proliferation as "the overriding security interest of our time." She also has urged that an expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- which will embrace Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as full members next year -- must extend its geographic reach beyond the European continent and evolve into "a force for peace from the Middle East to Central Africa."

Senior French officials say their government is wary of expanding NATO's geographic reach because it fears the alliance would become little more than a multinational military machine to assert global U.S. interests. While France's skepticism about U.S. intentions is well-known, other European allies voice similar concerns.

"If NATO is changing a military destiny once based on geography to a defense of common values, then where do we draw the limits?" asked a senior European diplomat. "Will we all agree on which values to fight for? And just how far do we then go to defend them?"

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Alexander Vershbow said Albright's suggestions were primarily intended to stimulate discussion of a "strategic concept" being prepared for a summit in Washington next April to celebrate NATO's 50th anniversary.

While the debate is still in its early stages, Vershbow said in an interview that the United States wants the new strategic statement "to lay out a bold vision for the next century and to provide practical guidance to our military structures on how resources can be shifted to meet these new kinds of threats."

He said the United States considers it necessary for European governments to expand their power-projection capabilities to relieve some of the burdens on American forces in defending alliance security interests outside Europe. Failure to do so, he said, could lead to erosion of U.S. support "if the allies are seen to be getting a free ride."

Albright addressed this perceptual problem at the December meeting, telling her European colleagues that "too often, the United States takes the heat for dealing with difficult issues while others take the contracts -- and that our willingness to take responsibility for peace and security makes it easier for others to shirk theirs."

A recent study by the Western European Union, a defense-oriented affiliate of the European Union, found that its 10 member nations were so feeble in projecting military power that they could not sustain long-term deployment of more than one division or three brigades. In an era of high joblessness and meager defense budgets, European governments appear reluctant to devote greater resources to coping with distant or murky threats.

Some European officials said they were outraged recently when visiting U.S. senators demanded Europe's unflinching support for American global initiatives, including a military attack against Iraq, as fair compensation for U.S. security commitments on the continent.

"Make no mistake: There is a direct relationship between decisions taken on Iraq in the next weeks and months and the future of U.S. support for NATO," warned Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) at a Munich defense seminar earlier this month.

Warner's statement was described as "blackmail" by several European diplomats here. "Whatever happens in Iraq, blind support for every policy dictated by Washington cannot be the basis of this alliance," said a European ambassador.

American appeals to stretch alliance interests beyond NATO's territorial domain reflect a longstanding argument between the United States and Europe over "out of area" activities. But the relative success of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has emboldened the United States to promote NATO initiatives for the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa that would have been unthinkable in Cold War days.