France, along with Germany and Russia, sees a final Security Council vote on whether Iraq is willingly disarming as far more than a vote to justify war.
Rather, the larger issue for this new antiwar alliance is how to rein in a United States they perceive as a potential bully on the global block.
As former imperial powers themselves, they assume the US actually seeks imperial reach beyond waging a war against terrorism. It doesn't help that President Bush has put no deadline on when the US would leave Iraq, or that he has lined up former imperial powers Spain and Britain as war allies, or is trying to win over Turkey, home of the former Ottoman Empire.
Empires, past and future, are now very much part of the debate. France, for instance, is using its ties among former colonies to win key votes for the Council's Iraq decision. Critics of France cite its heavy hand in sending troops into Ivory Coast last September - without UN permission - after a rebellion split that former colony.
Moscow worries that a bully-prone US outside the confines of the UN might intervene in Chechnya or another piece of Russia's remaining empire. China wonders if its imperial hold over Tibet might be a target. Better, they say, to have the US live within the awkward UN setup that requires all five of the veto-wielding permanent Council members to decide when a nation deserves invasion. No matter that the US sees a threat from Iraq's terrorist weapons.
But how imperial is this superpower Gulliver, one now led by a president who, pre-9/11, warned against "nation building"? America's benevolent acts after winning World Wars I and II, and the cold war are clear. And just last week, three nations - Colombia, South Korea, and the Philippines - renewed their request for US troops to help them retain their freedom.
Colombia wants US troops to fight directly against leftist rebels. No, thanks, said Mr. Bush. The Philippines, which ousted US military bases in 1992, wants American forces to locate Muslim terrorists. For a while, Bush said. And South Korea, worried about hints the US might shift its forces away from the North Korean border, made a plea for those forces to stay put.
The US invaded Afghanistan to oust Al Qaeda, and turned over much of the occupation to countries such as Germany. Then Bush gave the UN six months to find a way to disarm Iraq. Next week, he may ignore a veto by France or Russia or China and put 200,000 troops in Iraq. Then what?
In 1998, a reluctant US led NATO in rescuing Kosovo after Russia threatened a veto of UN approval. The world was made safer, the UN survived, and America shied away from once again becoming an empire. Why should it be any different after Iraq?