THE ANNUAL conference of the NATO military alliance has for 40 years been an occasion for mutual backslapping and bland statements by leaders of the Western powers.
At the start of this week, however, it was the scene of the deepest rift for decades between the US and the two leading European powers-France and Germany. The row over military assistance to Turkey came just days after those two countries, with Russian backing, proposed that they take the lead in dealing with Iraq, behind the fig leaf of the UN.
The US invasion army would be left sweltering in the desert on Iraq's border. The Bush gang was furious with France and Germany. One US official lumped the two with Cuba and Libya, countries Bush named as part of his 'axis of evil'.
There is far more behind the falling out than 'traditional French posturing' or the electoral fortunes of the German government-two explanations pushed by the right wing press.
The rift points to deep tensions between the most powerful states in the world. Those divisions will remain whether or not Bush manages to get the other states on the UN Security Council to go along with his war. The US is far and away the strongest military power on the planet. It also has the biggest economy of any single state.
But its economic dominance is not as great as in the 1950s or 1960s. The combined economy of the European Union is bigger. US capitalists and the gang in the White House remember the 1980s, when they had good reason to fear they were losing out to Japan, Europe and East Asia in the scramble for global profits.
The world economy is now slowing down. No one knows which economies and which countries' corporations will dominate in ten or 20 years time.
There are wild predictions from US think-tanks and the CIA about the potential growth of the Chinese economy. They may well be exaggerated, but the US's rulers cannot afford to stand still. Just as individual firms have to constantly reinvest for fear of losing out to the competition, so must the rulers of any capitalist state push to keep ahead.
The US ruling class has one big advantage over European capitalists, China and any other potential competitor-a military machine capable of projecting its power anywhere on earth.
The US has done that increasingly since the last Gulf War in 1991, appearing like the 'world's policeman'. The description, however, fits only in part. The US has certainly presented itself as bearing down on 'rogue states' and anyone who stands in the way of multinational corporations pumping profit from the majority of the world's population. So the other powers have been mostly happy to go along with US military intervention.
It would be no surprise if the French, German and Russian governments were to end up backing war on Iraq. But each US-led war has also been about securing greater influence for the US specifically, not simply propping up the system as a whole. There are rifts over war on Iraq because the big powers have their own distinct interests in the Middle East and beyond.
French and Russian companies have become the main investors in Iraq's oilfields over the last ten years. They don't want to lose out to US firms.
The gamble for France and Russia is whether to back Bush and trust they will receive a slice of the pie. Opposing him would mean greater influence if the war goes wrong for the US, but losing out totally if it wins quickly. It is not just the narrow consideration of Iraq's huge oil reserves. German capitalism is the major economic force in eastern Europe.
But the US has greatest political influence-Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary all backed Bush at the NATO conference, even though the large majority in each country are opposed to war.
The US military is moving forces from Germany eastwards into new bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. It's like Washington's Warsaw Pact-directed against Russia, still a major power, but also to keep France and Germany in check.
We are still a long way short of the kind of rivalry between the imperialist powers that led to the First and Second World Wars. But the rows this week show we are not heading towards harmony between the big capitalist powers, with conflict pushed to the edges of the system, as supporters of capitalist globalisation-and even some of its critics-maintain. That spells global political instability.
Nowhere is that clearer than Britain, where the establishment is torn between hanging on the US's coat-tails and seeking closer cooperation in Europe. Even if the rift between the US and the European powers is papered over, it threatens to rip Blair's New Labour government apart as millions of people here say no to war on Iraq, whoever is backing it.