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NEW YORK -- The U.N. Security Council has lived through decades of sterile Cold War shouting matches ended by vetoes, a Korean War approved only with the Soviets out of the room, and French and British defiance of the council with their 1956 invasion of Egypt.
But no previous crisis was as threatening to the established diplomatic order as the bitter public battle pitting the French and Germans against the Americans and British over whether to make war on Iraq, say veteran U.N. officials and foreign policy watchers.
Almost as surprising has been the American determination to exercise power regardless of world opinion, and the resistance of many nations to the U.S. agenda -- which together threaten a collapse of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
"The debate is only half about Iraq. The other half is about how a world with a single superpower will work," said Sir Brian Urquhart, a retired U.N. undersecretary-general.
"Some countries think that the purpose of the Council is to restrain the world's 'hyperpower,"' said Ed Luck, a professor at Columbia University's School of International Affairs and ex-president of the U.N. Association of the USA.
The current breakdown of the U.S.-European alliance over Iraqi disarmament has astounded veteran U.N. watchers, who say it represents a new phase in council diplomacy -- or lack of diplomacy.
"I can't think of anything quite like this," Luck said. "This is so unpredictable. It's a new set of actors."
Former U.N. official Richard N. Gardner, recalling decades of U.S.-European disputes over issues such as France's exit from NATO and U.S. basing of missiles on European soil, judged that NATO and the alliance would survive.
"I think this is as bad, or worse, than any of those," said Gardner, who at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the deputy assistance secretary of State for U.N. affairs. "This may be the roughest."
Jean Gazarian, a longtime U.N. official, has been astonished by the public rancor. "It's all happening in public. ... This is a very unusual departure," he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Peter James Spielmann covered the United Nations from 1988-93.