WASHINGTON — The declaration issued Wednesday by Germany, Russia and France against war in Iraq now — with its implicit threat of veto — may go down as the loudest "No!" shouted across the Atlantic in a half-century or more.
The nine-paragraph statement may not have slowed the seemingly inexorable drive by the Bush administration to commence military operations as early as next week. But the fact that Europe's largest powers felt compelled to present President Bush with an 11th-hour challenge deepened fissures that have opened in the last year with major allies.
It also set up a final confrontation at the U.N. Security Council over a resolution authorizing war in Iraq, a step that increasingly looks as if it could be forsaken for lack of majority support among the 15 members.
Beyond the immediate issue of war, the declaration was a broad affront to Washington that admonished the Bush administration that the international system is "at a turning point" on establishing the rules of the road after the Cold War, and the Franco-German bloc is too large a force — if not in military power — in economic and cultural terms, to ignore.
Their criticism extended to Bush's overall Middle East policy, where they faulted his administration for delays in "publishing and implementing" a road map that would return the promise of negotiations and peace to the Arab-Israeli dispute, something most Europeans feel Bush has neglected.
The Bush administration, it seemed clear from public remarks on Wednesday, did not see the European gambit coming. Even after the statement from Paris was issued by the three foreign ministers, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was trying to play down the significance of their warning that, "We will not let a proposed resolution pass that would authorize the use of force."
Private bristling and public bluster had been building for days as Igor S. Ivanov of Russia, Dominique de Villepin of France and Joschka Fischer of Germany consulted in advance of their thunderbolt while American and British diplomats tracked their movements and conversations as if they were adversaries.
Allies do not act this way, Henry A. Kissinger, a former secretary of state, said in an interview. For members of the Western alliance "to go into open opposition" on a matter like Security Council resolution No. 1441, which clearly frames a war issue affecting American security after the Sept. 11 attacks, "that's a very grave decision," Kissinger said.
"If this keeps up," he added, "we will wind up in a sort of 19th century balance-of-power game, in which it is not self-evident that we will lose."
But German and French diplomats said Wednesday they were simply declaring their independence, something Washington has long expected in the wake of the Cold War.
"I don't see it as a permanent rift," said Karsten D. Voigt, the German diplomat who coordinates policy toward America under Fischer. For Germany, the trans-Atlantic relationship remains a "fundamental pillar" of its foreign policy, he said. But Wednesday's declaration should be a reminder to Washington not only of the deep "moral and ethical" aversion to war on the continent, but also that the negative reaction to the tone emanating from the administration.
That tone, Voigt said, was that "the Europeans are not needed, that they reflect something old and that, at best, they are irrelevant."
For France and Germany, Wednesday was also an opportunity to strike a pose of unity to an audience within Europe, where new democracies among East and Central European states are clamoring to join the European Union and have declared support for Washington's Iraq policy.
In backing Bush so strongly these newly liberated states have undermined Paris and Berlin as the dominant voices in shaping the continent's foreign policy.
But the continent's traditional powers — "Old Europe" to some Bush aides — may have recovered some of that influence on Wednesday.
The declaration also dispelled the notion among senior Bush aides that Germany, France and Russia could be peeled away from the opposing camp one by one, and it may render moot Friday's Security Council meeting in New York.
There, Hans Blix, one of the chief U.N. inspectors, is scheduled to summarize his views that inspections have shown significant progress, but that Iraq has yet to make the fundamental decision to disgorge both the materials and the secrets of programs to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Powell argued forcefully on Wednesday that this should be proof enough that the time for diplomacy has ended. And the meetings at the White House on Wednesday between Bush, his national security advisers and Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander in the Middle East, signaled that Bush already may have moved beyond diplomacy.
Others hold out hope.
"Russia is prepared for a kind of compromise," said Vladimir P. Lukin on the telephone from Moscow. He is a former ambassador to Washington and deputy speaker of the Russian parliament. "But what kind of compromise can you have if the U.S. doesn't want to hear anybody?" he asked.
For Bush aides, like Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, an expert on Russia, the apparent defection of President Vladimir V. Putin and Russia's threat to exercise its veto was something of a repudiation of the administration's policy toward Russia.
Even though Putin stepped up intelligence cooperation and made a profound strategic adjustment to welcome American forces into former Soviet territory on Afghanistan's northern flank, "No Russia expert can cite a net gain or a tangible benefit from Russia's relationship with the United States after Sept. 11," said Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
As the hour glass empties on Iraq, the gap between Washington's disarmament demands and Europe's strategy for achieving them with "speeded up" inspections and "detailed timelines" seem very narrow. "Timelines" sounded very much like deadlines to give a final answer on where the VX nerve gases and the the mobile biological weapons labs are hidden.
"These inspections cannot continue indefinitely," the European statement said. It failed to suggest an alternative timeline that might form the basis of a reasonable to offer Bush, who appears to be under significant pressure to act quickly if only to stanch the slide in public support for the war and for his handling of foreign policy. But to act without core allies involves another level of risk.
For every diplomat who said on Wednesday that compromise was still possible, another expressed pessimism. "This is now the endgame of a very complicated situation," said Voigt.