Last year, the United States and its NATO allies drafted a list of ethnically diverse European nations to show Kosovo leaders, hoping it would serve as a model for accommodation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the province.

Spain, Italy, Russia, Finland and Belgium each had found ways to bridge ethnic differences within their borders peacefully, the United States and NATO said in a report that was designed to persuade ethnic Albanians to end their campaign for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.

Since then, however, the ethnic conflict in Kosovo has sharpened to the point that many U.S. officials now regard Kosovo's independence as an essentially all-ethnic Albanian state as inevitable. Still, most European nations cling to the vision expressed in the report. One reason is their fear that Kosovo might become a model for separatist movements in Europe; another is anxiety that any new tumult in the Balkans will wreak further social and economic havoc on Europe's southern tier.

Instead of European nations serving as a model for Kosovo, there is increasing concern on the continent that Kosovo's troubles might somehow serve as a prototype of Europe's future. This has created a divide between European and U.S. diplomats on what should be allowed to happen in the Serbian province.

German diplomats say independence must be opposed because it will set off what one described as "war [between Slavs and ethnic Albanians] in Macedonia, an unsettled Bosnia," and a new flow of refugees into central Europe. Italian diplomats say they worry about the creation of a Greater Albania and a new influx of refugees that could increase crime and cause instability in Europe.

Russia has worried openly about the effect Kosovo secession could have elsewhere on the continent. According to several accounts of a recent meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and top U.N. officials, Ivanov said Russia had deployed 3,600 soldiers as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to block "a second Dagestan"--a reference to the southern Russian region where guerrillas from neighboring Chechnya are trying to establish an independent Islamic state.

Europeans tend generally to see Kosovo independence "as an actively negative development that should be combated . . . [while] the United States is the most forward-leaning," a Western diplomatic source said. "I can't think of any other country where it is the consensus view, even if unspoken" that Kosovo's independence will occur.

Publicly, at least, the Clinton administration says its policy is to support a democratic Kosovo within Serbia and Yugoslavia, but to many officials in Washington, Kosovo's independence is simply the predictable outcome of more than a decade of animosity and 16 months of warfare between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian minority that has left more than 12,000 people dead.

U.S. and European officials are loath to discuss these differences openly because they want to preserve an image of NATO unity and to maintain Russian involvement in the peacekeeping force in Kosovo, officials said. Russia has threatened to withdraw its forces from Kosovo if it drifts toward independence.

Although neither the United States nor other Western nations are pressing to decide Kosovo's future soon, their differences pervade deliberations on virtually every Kosovo policy, according to senior U.S. and European officials. "If you think [independence] will never happen, you talk about [setting up] economic institutions and structures one way. If there is an underlying resignation about it, then you discuss these things in different ways," observed one diplomat.

The differences were initially manifest last June, after Yugoslav and Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo and NATO called off its three-month bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The United States was surprised during the drafting of U.N. Resolution 1244, which provides the legal basis for the peacekeeping force, when European officials sought to delete any reference to an agreement the previous February with ethnic Albanian leaders.

That agreement, which was bitterly opposed by the Serb-led government in Belgrade, provided for consideration of "the will of the people" in deciding Kosovo's future--clearly leaving a political door open to the option of independence. But "the Europeans wanted to backpedal from that," a diplomat said. The United States successfully demanded that the reference be preserved on grounds that to do otherwise would hand the Belgrade government a political victory.

Some European officials say ethnic enmity in Kosovo can fade and the territory can be pressured to remain part of Serbia once Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is removed from office. But a senior U.S. official with long involvement in Kosovo matters dismissed this view.

Even if Milosevic is replaced by "someone named Thomas Jeffersonovic, the Albanians will not want any Serbs back" in Kosovo, the official said. He added that administration officials "are not stupid enough to think that Albanians and Serbs are going to live together the way Bosnians and Serbs are starting to" in Bosnia, a former Yugoslav republic where Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs fought a 1992-1995 war.

The U.S.-European differences were evident during debate over the past three months on the future of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian separatist movement that battled Belgrade government security forces for 16 months. In July, the Clinton administration proposed that "consideration" be given to the possibility of forming a civilian national guard as a successor to the KLA, but Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had to lobby German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder before he would agree.

When it came time for final agreement with the rebel leaders, "some of the Europeans thought that the KLA should just go away," a diplomatic source said. Even a close U.S. ally on Kosovo, Britain, initially balked at accepting the KLA's proposal--which ultimately was accepted--to name the new organization the Kosovo Defense Corps. Germany shared Britain's conviction that this sounded too much like a national army.

But Bernard Kouchner, a Frenchman who is the chief U.N. administrator in Kosovo, was eager to get a deal that might help "redirect [the KLA's] aspirations" away from violence, as he explained later. So he called French President Jacques Chirac, who in turn persuaded British Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior German officials to overrule their subordinates.