George Bush's go-it-alone, take-it-or-leave it foreign policy collided head-on with collective political reality at Nato's ministerial meeting in Budapest this week. Far from succumbing to the seductive advances of the Bush administration's recent strategic missile defence charm offensive, the European allies jointly gave secretary of state Colin Powell the cold shoulder. No, they did not agree that the alliance was currently facing a "common threat" from ballistic missiles in the hands of so-called rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.
No, they were still concerned that arms control and anti-proliferation efforts would be needlessly harmed by US moves, for example, to abrogate or scrap the ABM treaty. And, no, they did not believe that a probable, destabilising arms race involving China and a possible, sharp dip in western relations with Russia was a price worth paying for systems of unproven value and dubious efficacy. What the allies wanted was continuing, "vigorous" consultation on America's missile plans along with an equal emphasis on counter-proliferation and diplomatic contacts with states of concern.
These three allied nos seem to have taken Mr Powell by surprise and perhaps the Europeans themselves. The secretary of state will face some some uncomfortable questions from virtual-president Dick Cheney and Pentagon hardman Donald Rumsfeld when he gets home. Their assumption since taking office, fed to Mr Bush, is that the allies will do what theyare told on missile defence (and much else besides). Perhaps Tony Blair encouraged that misperception at Camp David when he argued for the EU's rapid reaction force; and perhaps Mr Powell, who gets his diplomatic skis crossed with amazing regularity, will now be blamed for being too soft. Perhaps the allies will indeed eventually cave in. But the root causes of this mini-mutiny lie elsewhere.
One might be termed the "Jeffords effect". European leaders are fully aware of the shift to the centre in Washington caused by the Vermont senator's defection from Republican ranks. They know full well that Joe Biden and other newly empowered Democrats share their doubts on missile defence. Another cause runs deeper. Slowly but surely, Europe is evolving a shared foreign and security policy. Oddly, that process is being accelerated by Mr Bush's didacticism. As he may discover when he visits Europe next month, unilateralism can cut two ways.