PARIS — Paris. -- The "challenge to American world leadership" that many saw in the Munich G-7 meeting last week was in fact a challenge to America's predominant role among the industrial democracies. Leadership is something else.
The Western European countries, collectively, are by gross measures of economy and industrial production more important today than the United States, and are mostly in much better economic and social health.
Hence they have proved increasingly unwilling to yield to Washington's wishes concerning policies of economic stimulus and growth, and on farm subsidies and other obstacles to trade liberalization.
But if leadership has moved to Europe, as in the Bosnian crisis, it is because President Bush has been unwilling to do anything that might risk his already shaky re-election prospects. It is a case of American renunciation, or abdication, of a leadership it might otherwise have easily claimed.
The French argue that Europe now leads in dealing with the former Yugoslavia, and they have pressed to expand that European role at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Western European Union meetings.
However, the French do themselves a disservice in talking about European leadership. There has from the beginning been no collective European action on the Yugoslav war that has had serious effect. Lord Carrington's mediation, the powerless EC monitoring groups, the confused response to the Yugoslav successor-states' demands for recognition, have done next to nothing to check ethnic violence or expansionism.
The leadership of the past two weeks has come from France, not ''Europe.'' The Sarajevo airport was opened, and the humanitarian airlift made possible, by President Francois Mitterrand's visit to Sarajevo, the dispatch of some 300 French marine commandos and the willingness of French air force pilots to open an air bridge despite the unresolved threat of Serbian artillery and the danger of cross-fire.
Nothing would have happened without France's initiatives, which reflected its developing conviction that the international community has a right to make humanitarian interventions that ignore national sovereignty when grave violations of human rights exist.
There is in this a very important lesson about leadership, one which the gulf war should have taught.
Groups do not lead. Individual governments lead. Europe as a group of states was incapable of acting effectively on Yugoslavia because it had no common judgment on the implications of the crisis, nor on what should be done.
Europe does not agree even today. In Munich, the Group of Seven threatened military intervention in Bosnia. The group would have serious problems carrying this out, if it comes to the test. The United States has already said it will supply no ground troops. Britain makes a sound argument against armed ground intervention, based on experience in Northern Ireland. Germany still is legally precluded from taking part. The Japanese are out.
Nor are the NATO powers in agreement. The United States, Germany and Britain make the biggest contributions to NATO, and are the states most reluctant to intervene on the ground. If the Western European Union is pressed into action, it would only be because of French and Italian pressure.
The idea that the United Nations, the European Community or the CSCE are capable of collectively producing a security policy for the post-Communist world is deeply unrealistic. It is up to individual governments to assume leadership and make decisions, forming coalitions of the like-minded in support of their initiatives.
It was Britain's own secretary of state for defense, Malcolm Rifkind, who expressed this a few days ago when presenting Parliament with a white paper on defense strategy.
He said that Britain, like France, has an historical responsibility in today's international conditions. Britain like France, he said, is a nuclear power, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, possessing residual colonial responsibilities. Both nations were (indeed, are) European great powers, conscious of global affairs and prepared to act. In these respects, they are fundamentally different from the smaller European countries.
''Europe'' would not have rescued the Falklands. ''Europe'' assumes little effective responsibility for disorder and hunger in ex-colonial Africa. ''Europe'' cannot agree on what to do about Yugoslavia. It was the United States, not the international community, which decided that Iraq had to be ejected from Kuwait. It was Britain, not the international community, which decided the Kurds had to be protected.
In each case the crucial decisions have been taken by individual national governments, who then turned to their allies for a consensus of approval, and for such assistance as each of the allies was willing to supply. This is how it has worked, and this is the way it is going to work for the foreseeable future.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.