A referendum on the euro is unlikely before the next election, mainly because Tony Blair, having survived a real risk to his premiership over the Iraq war, will not want to push his luck too far. But if the Prime Minister does gamble his future again, true Europeans must hope that he fails.
This is one of the paradoxes of the European debate in Britain. Among those who oppose British integration into the EU, few understand that the most likely effect of Britain remaining semi-detached will be to speed the evolution of something resembling a European state. Equally, those who fervently yearn for Britain to enter more closely into European institutions rarely grasp that in so doing, it would deform them and block the development of a European alternative to the Anglo-American model. Thus the boneheads in the Conservative Party who resist every move by Britain towards closer links with Continental Europe are aiding Euro-federalism, while the idealists who long for Britain to become a fully European country are weakening any prospect of Europe following a path of its own.
It is important that Europe should follow such a path. A chorus of earnest transatlantic voices tells us that it is dangerous for Europe and the United States to drift apart and that the trend should be resisted. They are wrong. The present world order, with its single dominant power, is unsustainable. Whatever the ambitions of the Bush administration, the US is ill-fitted - militarily, economically and culturally - for a global imperial role. A new multipolar world needs a more assertive Europe. Europeans and Americans will both be better off when they accept that the era of US hegemony is over.
To talk of the end of American hegemony in the aftermath of the Iraq war may seem paradoxical, but that war demonstrated the limits of American power. The military campaign in Iraq was a notable success, but it was conducted as it was because Turkey denied access to the American forces. The Turkish government did this despite huge economic incentives offered by the Americans. It had little choice. The war was so widely and deeply unpopular in Turkey that any other policy posed risks to the regime. There is a conceit in Washington that America can afford to ignore the voice of the street in Muslim countries. Turkey's stance shows that this is a delusion.
The limitations of America's military might are equally clear in the context of postwar Iraq. US policy was based on the conviction that the Iraqi majority wants something like western democracy. Aside from the heavily partisan speculation of some Iraqi exiles there was never much evidence for this belief and events since the war ended have shown it to be baseless. If Iraq's Shia majority wants democracy, it is of an Iranian-style theocratic type, not any western liberal variety. In destroying the Ba'athist state, the Americans not only toppled a brutal tyranny, they also demolished one of the Middle East's most long-standing secular regimes. It seems not to have occurred to them that in these circumstances power would pass to the mullahs. Just as in Europe after the First World War American enthusiasm for self-determination released the evil genie of ethnic nationalism, so today the neo-cons driving US policy in the Middle East are unleashing the suppressed power of radical Islam.
In Iraq the result is to leave the US in a quandary. US forces are not trained to act as an army of occupation. The Pentagon's overriding preoccupation with "force protection" bars the soldiers from any close contact with the people they claim to have liberated. Against this background, it is not surprising that American forces have resorted to deadly force against peaceful demonstrations. Such incidents are likely to increase as indigenous power structures spring up around the mullahs to deal with the anarchy that has followed the collapse of the Ba'athist regime.
Manifestly, the American military does not possess the skills that are needed in circumstances such as these. Even if it did, it would not have the resources. The Rumsfeld doctrine - supposedly vindicated by the success of the war - demands small, highly mobile forces equipped with the latest technology. This can only mean a reduction in the size of the US army. There will simply not be enough boots on the ground to sustain the messy, colonial-type occupation that will be required.
Above all, it is not clear that the American public will pay the blood price of empire. A small but steady flow of body bags will surely be the price of a long-running American occupation of Iraq. The attacks of 11 September may have made Americans more ready to tolerate the burdens of war - including a far-reaching curtailment of their liberties. But this does not mean they will accept an unending stream of casualties. Today, as in previous periods, American culture harbours a strong strain of isolationism. America may turn against Bush's policies in the Middle East if they involve burdensome commitments of money and personnel - to say nothing of the sort of attacks on Americans that we have just seen in Riyadh. Yet a sizeable long-term military presence seems required if the US is to retain control of the country. How else can the emergence of an Iranian-style regime be forestalled and US control of Iraqi oil maintained?
The Bush administration's muddle in Iraq exemplifies a larger incoherence in American thinking. Under the influence of neoconservative ideologues, the US has embarked on an imperial mission it has neither the means nor the will to sustain. There is nothing new in American imperialism. Despite its anti-colonial self-image, the US has long enjoyed the privileges of empire in Latin America, and it has used its control of transnational institutions such as the IMF to exploit developing countries in classically imperialist fashion.
What is new is the scale of American ambitions. The US is seeking to entrench a unipolar global regime at a time when its dependency on the rest of the world has never been greater. The theory of American imperial overstretch developed by Yale University's Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published in 1987, may have been premature, but it was prescient in capturing the mismatch between American imperial ambitions and growing American economic weakness.
The current weakness of the dollar shows just how vulnerable the US has become. In part it reflects a belated realisation that the claims made for the unique productivity of the American model were largely fraudulent. The scandals revealed at Enron and other American companies were not just examples of corporate excess. They suggest that the extravagant claims that were made for the American model of capitalism in the 1990s may well have relied on cooking the books. If international investors are fleeing the dollar for the euro, one reason is that they suspect that when they bought into American assets in the 1990s, they were robbed.
Besides showing how widely the US economic model is discredited, the weakness of the dollar is a sign that a multipolar world is already a reality. Hostility to US Middle Eastern policies may be one reason why the Saudis are diverting some of their resources into Europe. Similarly, resistance to the American-led global monetary regime is clearly a factor in the recent call by the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, for Malaysia's state oil company to abandon the dollar for the euro. It is worth remembering that Iraq converted its currency reserves from dollars to euros in October 2000. At the time, expert economic opinion was virtually unanimous that this would prove a costly error. In fact, because the euro appreciated hugely, the Iraqi regime made a handsome profit from the exchange. Malaysia may be only the first of a number of countries to follow its example.
The effect of American hubris is to rally resistance to US power, and Europe is pivotal in this global reaction. America may be able to intimidate small states by reminding them of the fate of Yemen, a desperately poor country whose economy was nearly destroyed when the US cut off aid in retaliation for its opposition to the first Gulf war. It cannot bully the EU in quite the same way. Aside from the euro's growing strength, European attitudes on issues of war and peace reflect those of the international community - not the fictitious entity invoked by the US to rubber-stamp its unilateral decisions, but the actual community that forms a majority in every transnational institution.
The US is alone in seeing pre-emptive war as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy. It is not just Europe that finds the peculiar mix of dark Manichaean gloom and wild Pelagian optimism that shapes American policies today alien, repugnant and dangerous. So do Russia, China, India, Japan, much of Africa and Latin America and the whole of the Islamic world. In speaking up for sober diplomacy against American ranting and bullying, Europe speaks for practically the entire world.
What the world needs is not the healing of Euro-American tensions, as preached by pious Atlanticists, but a European counterweight to American power. The Atlantic Alliance was a by-product of the internecine European conflicts of the 20th century - two civil wars and an ensuing cold war. Now that those conflicts are past, Europe and America are reverting to what they were in the 19th century - civilisations that, despite their common roots, grow in very different directions. Europe and America are divided not only by their diverging economic interests and foreign policies, but also by their values and world-views. I am sure that European perspectives are closer to reality, but no amount of argument will dispel the illusions that animate American foreign policy. Only history can do that.
There are two large obstacles to Europe acting as a brake on US power. The first is Europe itself. Saddled with a currency whose present strength merely compounds its economic problems, deeply divided and yet still wedded to obsolete ideas of top-down harmonisation, the EU is as far from being able to act as a coherent and effective force in the world as it has ever been. Internally, it is not exactly a hotbed of progressive forces. In several countries the far right has made a comeback, exploiting the social side-effects of globalisation to mount an attack on immigrants and minorities. Militarily, it is still far from developing any operational rapid reaction force, and European governments show little sign of accepting the large increases in defence expenditure that will be necessary if the EU is to have the ability to act independently of the US. Europe has become the voice of the international community and the euro a viable alternative to the dollar. Yet in terms of projecting its power in the world, the EU is still nowhere near mounting an effective challenge to the US.
The second obstacle is Britain, and more particularly Tony Blair. Here the difficulty is not - as pro-Europeans maintain - the Prime Minister's failure to summon the courage to call a referendum on the euro, and thereby fulfil his ambition of putting Britain at the heart of Europe. The real problem is that if Blair were to take Britain more deeply into Europe, the prospects of the EU developing into a brake on American power, which at present are slight, would be reduced to zero. When he first came to power a number of commentators identified Blair as a European Christian Democrat. If that was ever true, it is no longer. In his view of the world, the Prime Minister is now a fully-fledged neoconservative. He sees American power as the embodiment of progress and views Europe chiefly as an impediment to American policies. If Blair achieves his dream of taking Britain into the heart of Europe the result will be to split the EU irrevocably. On every issue of importance Britain will take the side of the "new" European countries that are forging bilateral ties with the US. Whenever it can, Britain will thwart the attempts of "old" Europe to shape the EU into a force distinct from, and capable if necessary of opposing, the US.
So long as it serves a Blairite agenda, Britain's deeper integration into the EU spells the end of any European project worthy of the name. Not only in foreign and defence matters but also in economic and social policy, Britain's goal will be to "modernise" Europe on an Anglo-American model. Continental Europe will be urged to emulate Britain's public services - a difficult process that might take some time, given that it would mean wrecking the incomparably more user-friendly services they enjoy now. They will be lectured on the virtues of the now largely privatised British pensions system - a system that has left very large numbers facing penury in old age. They will be told to deregulate their communications industries, making it easier for an American view of the world to dominate the media. In short, they will be told to repeat the experience of Britain over the past 20 years, in which it has become a tacky replica of the US.
The much-maligned "old Europe" will be much better fitted to the emerging multipolar world than to the backward-looking visions of Atlanticists such as Blair. If Europe has a future, it is as an alternative to the US. If President Chirac really understands this, then - in the spirit of Charles de Gaulle - he will veto Britain's bid for euro membership.
Whether or not Europe manages to mount a challenge to US power, Europe and America are likely to continue to drift apart. This is a trend that should be welcomed, not opposed. Europeans and Americans need not become enemies once they cease to be partners. They can do business without pretending that their values and views of the world are the same. They need not affect a forced harmony in order to co-operate to mutual advantage.
The transatlantic divide has dangers - not least trade war. Even so, it is foolish to seek to renew the Atlantic Alliance. The forces working in the direction of a multipolar world are too strong to be resisted for long. Europeans will not support American policies that they view as ill-conceived and hubristic, and rightly so. The US will find it increasingly difficult to sustain the unnatural burden of empire. Perhaps it is time Americans and Europeans embraced the multipolar world that is coming anyway, and learnt to cope with its risks.
John Gray is the author of Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, just published by Faber and Faber