PARIS -- TENSION AND distrust are now overriding factors in Washington's relations with its European allies. The initial European response to last September's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington - a tightening of alliance links - has been wasted by the United States.
The US press is given mild and conciliatory messages about the underlying firmness of trans-Atlantic cooperation in the war against terrorism and the unimportance of European criticisms, but these reassurances are not borne out by conversations with European leaders or in analyses in the mainstream European press. Criticism and apprehension about the consequences of US policies prevail. In private there is consistent criticism. In public, nothing serious is said or done by the European governments.
It might seem that Americans could therefore ignore what the Europeans think or say in the belief that European objections to US policies make no difference. The Europeans will eventually fall in line. They have no real alternative. This time, that might be a dangerously complacent conclusion, because the Europeans do have alternatives, explosive ones. They could overturn the post-Cold War alignment tomorrow and do so to their own probable political and economic profit.
They do not themselves understand their power. Few among Europe's leaders seem to grasp that if the European NATO governments and public indeed object to a US attack on Iraq, they can prevent it, or block it for many months, while accomplishing a transformation in the Middle Eastern situation.
Few understand that the European Union does not have to wait until it has built up its feeble military forces in order to have an independent world policy with independent international influence to rival that of the United States. The world today is not one in which military forces are the most effective means of power.
This is already evident in the commercial and economic relations of Brussels between Washington. Washington cannot dismiss European corporate strength and economic competition. It is compelled to deal with the European Union as a powerful trade rival to whom it has to make concessions.
The same thing could be accomplished in political relations if the European NATO allies, or even some of them, were to take a simple but decisive step: reaffirm that, as its founding treaty states, NATO is an alliance of independent and politically equal countries.
The Europeans could refuse US use of NATO's European assets in an attack on Iraq on the grounds that such an attack does not fall under the agreements on countering terrorism that produced NATO's antiterrorism resolution of last September.
To do this would not destroy NATO. It might even save it by recreating in it a political equilibrium. Sooner or later the European powers will have to deal with the consequences of US unilateralism, and if the European public feels strongly about Iraq (and indeed about the Israeli-Palestine situation), now could be the best occasion to act.
The fundamental reason that NATO will not be destroyed is that the United States needs NATO more than Europe does.
NATO no longer serves to protect Europe from any threat. The threat is gone. NATO provides the indispensable material and strategic infrastructure for US military and strategic deployments throughout Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa.
NATO gives the United States a military presence, usually with extraterritorial privileges, in every one of the alliance member countries and in most of the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet countries that are members of the Partnership for Peace.
Washington needs NATO because without NATO the United States has no legitimate claim to a say in European internal matters. Richard Holbrooke once said (to some European indignation) that the United States is a European power. So it is, so long as NATO exists.
A polite mutiny by some or all of the European NATO countries on the question of war with Iraq would certainly produce what Saddam Hussein might describe as the mother of all trans-Atlantic rows, but in the end the United State would back down.
After such a mutiny, NATO would be a different alliance. After that, the European allies would certainly never again have reason to complain that Washington was paying no attention to them. But do the Europeans really want this? Or is it all talk?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.