It's time we all signed up for the Rest of the World team

Once upon a time, when East was East and West was West and two great hegemons snorted at each other over a high ideological fence, there browsed in the international jungle a herd which called itself the Nonaligned Bloc. To join the nonaligned did not signal hostility to the great powers so much as collective determination not to be eaten by a hegemon. But hegemony collapsed, and for some time now there has been no nation in the jungle so fearsome as to scare the rest into a defensive grouping. The nonaligned broke up. The bloc was forgotten.

It is time to reinvent it. Hegemony was not dead, but sleeping. Today there is only one hegemon, the United States of America; but there is no less a need than existed during the Cold War for a wary defensiveness towards the appetite, the pretensions and the dreams of a great and unchallenged power. If the US eagle is to be contained, collective action is needed by the smaller mammals.

Not all will sign up: some will throw in their lot with the great power and hope for protection and, whenever the eagle dines, for scraps from the feast. But those who choose to stay outside the American cage will need to unite, however loosely, for their own protection. They will have to keep their wits about them.

Yesterday the leaders of Russia, Germany and France met in St Petersburg to talk about the future. They carried with them worries about America shared by many other nations, large and small: Canada, China, New Zealand, Sweden, India, South Africa ... I could make a list that included most of the rest of the world. That meeting, and others to come, could mark the beginnings of some sense of commonality between those civilised nations that have not chosen to fly with the great eagle, and some sense of the need for collective action in clipping its wings. To call this 'The US versus the Rest of the World oversimplifies, but conveys the spirit. To put it more modestly, those nations that do not choose to take Washington's whip are going to need to coordinate their positions and keep in touch. The balance of power needs rebalancing. For want of a better term, I shall call the grouping of which Russia, Germany and France now form a putative core, the Rest of the World.

For Iraq may not be the last American adventure. Certainly it was not intended to be by those in Washington who were the authors of this invasion: they see it as a bridgehead, the beginning of a new and swelling American assertiveness worldwide. Their argument has been clear: that, however dubious or partial the logic of attacking Iraq today may have seemed, there is a deeper logic - a tomorrow - to the strategy, a taking command with such decisiveness that forces of disorder and un-Americanism in the world will bow, one by one, to Washington's will.

Unless America now takes that command we will have to assume that Washington has thought better of the strategy. To argue (as Tony Blair tries to) that Iraq was some kind of a one-off is to mistake (or cloak) America's purpose. While Damascus arms Hezbollah murderers, for the United States to stop at Baghdad would be a sign of failure.

It is, however, just possible that failure will be faced. The peace in Iraq may prove dirtier than the war, and the American people (as distinguished from their Defence Secretary) are ambivalent about empire and squeamish about becoming other nations policemen. Over the next year a real mess in Iraq might be capable of stopping the Rumsfeld doctrine in its tracks; George W. Bush would depart the White House; and American foreign policy would revert to a more Clintonian model. I hope so.

However grisly and sad, horrors in Iraq now could head US foreign policy off a course which within a decade will lead to grislier entanglements at greater costs. For empires are seldom lucky enough to have their pretensions dashed early by a single, defining, defeat. More often they are drawn in deeper by a series of small apparent successes. Finally they thrash around, unloved, over-extended and harried on all sides. If only the way into this ambush had been blocked earlier.

But there is a strong chance that by the end of this summer Iraq will be subdued, and the armchair warriors on both sides of the Atlantic will be able to claim success for their strategy. As I have argued for three months now, success is, on balance, the likelihood; and a more frightening prospect than failure. As America grows more confident of its muscle and command, it will be clashing again and again, not just with old enemies but with former friends - over trade, the environment, 'pre-emptive defence, regime change, international law, extradition ... the list is speculative, but let us speculate.

Take trade. The free-trading instincts of the United States are not robust - no stronger than the 'old Europe's. Especially during a recession, protectionist voices will be loud in America. And there will be calls for sanctions against those who disappoint it politically. What will Britain do if the US Congress tries to discriminate against French and German business, offering the United Kingdom favoured status, formal or informal? This will look like British treachery to the European Union. If America gets serious about protectionism, the Rest of the World will have to get serious about threatening a response.

Or take the environment. Less and less does Washington feel the need to pay even lip-service to international processes such as Kyoto. The Rest of the World may conclude it is better to abandon the attempt to keep America on board, rather than continually diluting and postponing action. The same may be true of the International Criminal Court from which it has already excluded itself: countries such as Britain try to see this as mere delay; but it might be better for those nations that wish to submit themselves properly to supranational rules of law to decide to go full steam ahead without America.

I am not suggesting the Rest of the World bring down a new Iron Curtain between a troublesome giant and an informal gang of wary smaller powers. But it is time to throw off habits of thought that are stuck in a past where 'the international community, 'the West or 'the civilised world had become sloppy, lazy expressions for a big stockade in which the good guys all resided, America foremost among equals. We must learn to envisage a world where we are not in the American stockade and do not need to be because there is no huge enemy we share with it. We should consider the means and institutions through which we can protect our own collective interests against a great power with interests of its own to pursue. We need to clip the eagle's wings, and we shall not do so singly.

I say 'we. But to the regret of some of us in Britain, our own country has passed up the chance to join the Rest of the World. Finding himself halfway across a swaying transatlantic bridge, our Prime Minister scuttled in panic to the American side - an act which we are now being urged to see as brave. But it happened more through miscalculation than valour. Tony Blair thought the bridge could be repaired and that he might be the bridgemaker. Now he is marooned on the other side and will have to take his chances there. Fellow Conservatives who, super-sensitive to the most trivial European encroachment on British sovereignty, used to bawl themselves hoarse in defence of the fat content of the British sausage, have over the past month witnessed the most spectacular ceding of our independence in foreign and military policy since Suez - and all without a peep. Secretly they smile. Blair's European affair is over.

The 'new Europe that he has boasted about assembling will scatter. Italy has already gone quiet, and in Spain Mr Blair's friend, Josi Marma Aznar, looks in danger of being ejected by the electorate. Other members of the group will scamper back into the Franco-German fold. Getting your friends to sign a joint letter to a world newspaper - this newspaper - is a great achievement but it does not amount to creating a permanent force in European politics, and signatories to that letter must wonder whether choosing Mr Blair as their pied piper was wise. Britain is on the margins of European politics now.

And what of the United Nations? It is the organisation's good luck that America no longer cares to invite its complicity, even to mop up. Tony Blair's observations on the legality of this adventure have been so bizarre that it is futile to try constructing from them any kind of theoretical basis, but as I understand it he and the Attorney-General think the US-UK coalition has occupied Iraq as an agent of the UN. Luckily, his senior coalition partners take a scornful view of the idea. I hope Washington maintains this attitude, for the day is coming when the UN must ask whether it is appropriate for its headquarters to remain in New York, whether it is appropriate to act as stretcher-bearers for US imperialism - or whether it might be better to rejoin the Rest of the World. The sooner that day comes, the better.