When the US analyst Robert Kagan - author of a much-quoted essay on US power and European weakness, published this summer - recently met French policy-makers and thinkers, the latter offered their own analysis. Yes, they said, Europe was weak, but its weakness came in three varieties. One was nostalgic weakness - the French variety, which looked back with regret on lost power and hated its present condition. The second was militant weakness, evident in the German election campaign, which insisted on the right to be impotent in a virile way. The third was weak weakness, in which inevitable inferiority was converted into a national policy. Weak weakness was represented by the UK, and by Tony Blair.
The UK position, however, may be better described as influentially weak. If President Bush has been pushed towards the UN as a possible vehicle for confronting Iraq's leadership, it is thanks not just to his father's old counsellors James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, and to his secretary of state, Colin Powell, but also to Tony Blair.
If a new resolution on Iraq can be crafted which satisfies the US and gets through the Security Council, then the US will be tied, at least for a time, to a UN-commanded process. However, if the US arbitrarily closes down the UN route before it has a chance to prove itself and decides to go it alone, Britain's position could come close to one of weak weakness, as the French described. Blair will either have to agree that it is better to do without the UN - a step with large implications for the future of both the UN itself and the UK's influence within it - or take Britain out of the fray and into one of the Euro-sulk positions.
If, on the other hand, the UN fails to accept a toughened resolution on Iraq, and indulges in the same kind of ineffective bluster as in the past, Britain could agree with the US that it is a useless body for dealing with the real world and try to convince others of this view.
Bush has given the UN a chance to be what it has always said it wants to be (although he personally almost certainly does not want it to be that). By demanding that it face up to the responsibilities of its resolutions on Iraq, he has concentrated its mind on producing action that can lead to real, rather than cosmetic, change in Iraq. The 1990s did not see the UN cover itself in glory in facing up to dangerous tyrants: it was on the wrong side of the Kosovo intervention and allowed a genocidal government in Rwanda to stimulate the killing of nearly a million people. We are right to worry about missions that proceed without UN approval, and thus without the sanction of international law. But we should also worry about the consequences of observing the legal niceties - which are usually measured in mounds of corpses.
The UN no longer has the cold war reason for inaction: that the division of the world into two camps entailed a Security Council which could agree on little of substance. The post-Soviet world, in which globalisation drives ever-deeper integration, should be a gift to the UN because it seems to make more tangible some features of common international purpose. We got, after all, agreement on intervention in the Gulf in 1991. We have discussions in the Security Council about assistance to African states that do not instantly collapse on calculations of which are clients and which enemies. The UN got agreement to support the independence of East Timor.
The French view - that everyone but the US is weak, and we amuse ourselves by squabbling with each other about how more or less contemptible our positions of weakness are - is a very powerful one, especially on the left. We have become so used to deprecating or regretting the hyper-power of the post-cold war US that we generally cease to reflect on how we might benefit from it. It has become an axiom that this large power is bad. But it has within it features which can advance the causes that the left holds dear (among which, at least officially, anti-Americanism was never one).
Making the UN a more effective lever against tyranny is one such cause, assisting the spread of democracy another. The US - if not as actively as under Bill Clinton - is committed to spreading democracy in the world. Although it has had many drawbacks and failures, its account in the 1990s is still probably a positive one. The encouragement of democratic practice in eastern Europe, Latin America and south-east Asia has had impressive results. The many backslidings from the lofty ideal - blind eyes to Russia's Chechen suppressions, soft slaps to China on its squashing of religious and political dissent, indifference to the struggles of dissidents in central Asia and parts of Africa - are real and bad. But they coexist with equally real and solid successes.
The large gap in the spreading of democratic practice is the Middle East. The need for stable oil supplies - to meet the public demand for rising living standards, which is by far the largest long-run pressure on any democratic politician - has led the west to support authoritarian regimes throughout the region. But in Iran and Iraq, which had been the two most socially and intellectually advanced (and most secular) of the Middle Eastern states, the real prize would be a successful, western-encouraged revolt against tyrannies that are almost certainly deeply unpopular. A recent poll in Iran showed very large apparent affection for the US - which, after decades of state-inspired hatred, puts the population in the position of eastern Europeans from the 1970s onward.
The western debate about the Middle East is in many respects confused. There is little evidence to support the view that the Arab "street" is greatly concerned about the plight of the Palestinians. There is even less to suggest that al-Qaeda terror springs from the Palestinian impasse. After all, al-Qaeda terror bloomed in 1998, with attacks on US embassies; at that time, the US was widely seen in the Arab world as the midwife of a settlement that would bring about Palestinian statehood. The European left has to understand that terror's ends are rarely social democratic: the IRA did not fight the British to improve the living standards of the Northern Irish Catholics, nor do ETA assassins wish to establish higher welfare payments in an independent Basque state than exist in Spain. Terror exists to further the power strategies of the terrorist group.
So these are depressing, even anguishing, times for a pro- European. The message throughout the EU is that the US is the problem, and reining it in is the mission. The fiction is that there is a single European position, when there are many and no way of combining them other than in a mush. We Europeans do not know what we mean, whether we say yes or no. When Silvio Berlusconi leaves Camp David saying that Italy is with Bush every step of the way, does this mean Italy will commit its forces to an intervention? When Gerhard Schroder says that German forces will never be committed to an intervention in Iraq, does this mean Germany would not join even a UN mission?
The narrative of US strength has become our real weakness - a beguiling story of crude brawn brushing aside subtle knowledge. In taking this line, we tend to ignore the democratic possibilities of intervention - as well as the successes of those we have made, as in Kosovo and Afghanistan. We are right to insist on debate, reflection and moderation, wrong to fashion that into a barrier against our capacity to do good and reverse oppression.