DON'T SWEAT THE BIG STUFF

The new year will bring new faces to the administration in Washington, as well as a new European Commission in Brussels. Hopes for a warmer relationship are rising on both sides of the Atlantic. Can the United States and Europe pursue a common agenda? Or is the West destined to endure another half-decade of discord? At first glance, optimism seems undeserved.

Despite committing a half-trillion dollars, suffering several thousand casualties and presiding over an estimated 100,000 Iraqi deaths, the United States remains trapped in its Mesopotamian quagmire. "Old Europeans" are no more likely to help now than before. "New Europeans" are bailing out. Next door, Iran may be moving toward nuclear capability, with U.S. and European officials clashing over whether to use force to stop Tehran. Taipei and Beijing continue to rattle sabers, while Brussels and Washington brace for a noisy showdown over arms sales to China. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the International Criminal Court, the United States continues to dishonor its ideals in European eyes.

If there is hope for the transatlantic relationship over the next four years, both sides need to divert their attention from these headline-grabbing disputes over military might. The real lesson of the past four years is that most Western triumphs can be traced to less-flashy strategies to promote peace and security--most of them led by Europeans.

The triumph of democracy in Ukraine, for example, is mostly attributable to the courageous Ukrainians who stood up to a tyrant and his thugs on the streets of Kiev. But we should not forget that the opposition was organized, trained and funded by U.S. and European governments. Europe took the lead, because officials in the U.S. State Department had to surmount initial resistance from a White House obsessed with keeping Russia's Vladimir Putin, no friend of Ukrainian democracy, active in the war on terror.

More broadly, since the end of the cold war, the enlargement of the European Union has been the single most successful Western force for spreading democracy and security. In early December, European leaders took a bold decision, braving widespread popular opposition to move ahead with Turkish membership negotiations. For the Muslim world, a democratic, European Turkey would offer a symbol of Western good will to contrast with carnage in Iraq.

Even in the Washington-led war on terror, Europeans are proving particularly useful. The United States can topple tyrants but cannot find terrorists in cities or mountain caves. Fortunately, tips from European services, especially those from France's robust, Arabic-speaking spy network--yes, that's Jacques Chirac's France!--have foiled several recent major terrorist attacks on the United States.

In drafting a transatlantic agenda, America and Europe would do well to learn from these low-key successes. Some suggestions:

Secure loose nukes. Forty countries possess nuclear materials that could be fashioned into a device--much of them vulnerable to theft or purchase by terrorists. A robust multilateral nonproliferation regime could be designed to shut down the production, theft, sale and transfer of nuclear technology, knowledge and materials--with particular focus on the former Soviet Union, Iran and North Korea. Key to success is providing those nations with financial subsidies and trade preferences--from the United States as well as Europe.

Block killer containers. If Federal Express knows where your packages are and where they came from, shouldn't homeland security agents as well? Yet of the containers entering Western ports every week, only a handful are inspected. A centralized tracking system could be had for just a few dollars a container--and the more detailed data would benefit business as well.

Prevent pandemics. Nuclear weapons aside, the most potent threat to Western security is the spread of fatal disease. Many developing countries have hardly any public-health system in place; if bioterrorists stole a killer virus for which humans lack immunity or a vaccine, a pandemic could circle the globe utterly unchecked. All this could be prevented by a more effective multilateral early-warning and treatment system, as well as more intensive international monitoring of biohazardous materials.

Make a success of Gaza. The future of a broader Middle East peace settlement rests on the success of the transition to a post-Arafat Palestinian Authority in Gaza. If Europeans truly support a settlement, and if President Bush truly aims to make good on his pledge to forge a new Middle East--something that would surely involve pressure on Ariel Sharon's Israel--then they cannot ignore this vital trouble spot.

Each of these policies would cost a few billion dollars or euros a year, compared with the hundreds of billions shoveled into Iraq. Each has important spinoffs for private citizens and businessmen: more efficient global trade, lower risk of disease and reduced refugee flows. Most important, each could revive pragmatic global multilateralism through quiet and informal processes. All this can be achieved during the next five years, if statesmen concentrate on the details, not the headlines.