A half century ago the cry “Who lost China?” was heard as American politics struggled to assign blame for the fall of the Chinese mainland to Communism and the flight of the Nationalist Chinese government to Taiwan. Today, with the relentless opposition, led by France, to U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime; anti-American demonstrations in Europe; and a split in the NATO alliance more severe than any in its history, U.S.-European relations as we have known them since the end of World War II may have come to an end. If so, “Who lost Europe?”

Tensions, sometimes arising to animosity, between Europe and the United States date back to the earliest acts that formed the American character and polity. The United States was deliberately designed, as Tocqueville discerned, to be an “anti-Europe.” The American founders turned the country’s great size and contentious factionalism into a constitutional mechanism designed to foster individual liberty and turn it to the common advantage. With checks and balances and the separation of powers, America emerged as a complex, layered political system that thrives on fierce competition and rambunctious behavior, even as the Europeans in this early modern period hurried to centralize state power as Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” insisted they must do in order to be safe.

As a result, the United States has perennially baffled, perplexed, and annoyed Eurocrats and Eurocentrists. Europeans concluded long ago that, resistant as it is to big social programs directed by a centralized bureaucratic elite, the United States cannot possibly be progressive or politically rational. George W. Bush is not the first “cowboy” president to win the scorn of Europeans.

This now comes to a head with the crisis over Iraq, which has split, and seems likely to transmogrify, the Atlantic alliance. Led by France, politicians and officials of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls “the old Europe” are trying to derail U.S. opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime by calling upon Washington to adhere to fundamental principles of international order and cooperation — to international law, to the U.N. Charter, to the use of diplomacy in the recognition that “war must be used only as the last resort.”

The trouble is that the old Europe has been working assiduously, tirelessly and often brilliantly in direct contradiction to these principles of international order and cooperation.

The 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions that apply to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and therefore are legally enforceable obligations of the U.N. member states. Taken together, they add up to one main point, well stated by former President Jimmy Carter in his Nobel Peace Prize speech last December: Iraq must take action to “eliminate all weapons of mass destruction” and then “permit unimpeded access by inspectors to confirm that this commitment has been honored. The world insists that this be done.” But France and its followers insist that this not be done. Instead, they want the inspectors to take the initiative, not Iraq; they propose an international game of hide-and-seek that runs directly counter to the legal requirements set forth in the U.N. resolutions.

Old Europe also insists that diplomacy, not force, provide the answer to the problem. But the most ancient and obvious of all international principles is that diplomacy is feckless when not backed by the credible threat of force — just as force unaccompanied by diplomacy is politically unsustainable. Few dispute the fact that the American administration’s threat of force last summer was the only way to get the United Nations back on the track toward disarming Iraq that it had followed from 1992 to 1998. It was the lack of assertive American muscularity between late 1998 and mid-2002 that gave Saddam Hussein the time to further expand and conceal his arsenal.

The French and others have also insisted that the United States commit itself to multilateral diplomacy. This the Bush administration has done only to face incessant French efforts to twist and obstruct that process, in effect punishing the United States for engaging multilaterally and strengthening the case of those who warned against falling into “the U.N. trap.” As seasoned observers predicted, Saddam, last week, for the umpteenth time, provided the inspectors and the French with precisely the minimalist promises he knew would induce them to demand that the world continue to play his game on his terms.

On the greatest question, that of war or peace, old Europe has disregarded centuries of experience and strategic common sense. If there is to be any chance for a peaceful solution to this crisis it lies in a unified alliance clearly ready and willing to go to war to enforce the U.N. resolutions. At several key points in recent months such a resolute stand might have convinced Saddam Hussein that the game was up, or given heart to an officers’ coup, or moved Iraq’s neighbors to arrange “an Arab solution.” But at every such moment the French have acted to split the NATO alliance or the Security Council, and now they have engineered a split in the European Union to boot. Thus old Europe repeatedly has given Saddam Hussein exactly what he always wants: a fracture in world resolve that he can use to play one side against another and weaken the likelihood of definitive action against him.

And “war only as a last resort” has been exposed as an immoral position when it comes to a despot like Saddam Hussein. Had the United States completed Desert Storm in 1992 by going to Baghdad or by fulfilling its duty to aid the internal Iraqi uprising against Saddam, the Iraqi people would have been spared another decade of misery. Had the United States not turned away from Desert Fox in 1998 following the United Nations’ declaration that Saddam Hussein was in “flagrant violation” of all its relevant resolutions, then we would not be where we are today. And if the United States does not go forward now to war against Saddam Hussein, it will soon find itself once again faced with the need to do so as the Iraqi menace grows. In this context, sanctions can be seen as a disgraceful means of avoidance, a cruel option selected by leaders who do not have the stomach to do what morality requires. Those who call for further sanctions now only compound this immorality. A war against Saddam now will not do a small fraction of the harm to the Iraqi people that years and years of sanctions have done.

Momentous changes can come at times in history when the weight of world affairs shifts. When Thomas Aquinas went north to lecture in Paris in 1245, the center of gravity moved from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. Today, the remarkable decision of 18 European countries, forming a geographic crescent from Britain to Spain to Italy to the Balkans to Poland to the Baltic nations has left France and Belgium and Germany — old Europe — as the hole in the doughnut.

Perhaps the most striking part of the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy document was its suggestion that from now on, America’s allies can come from anywhere, NATO included but not necessarily privileged. Now some NATO countries have decided to act along with us. We are looking not at an alliance, but a pool from which comrades in arms may come, or not. NATO will never be the same again. So Europe will not be lost, but “old Europe” has lost its way.

Charles Hill is a lecturer in international studies and teaches in the Grand Strategy program.