Major's aides confident about Clinton meeting

February 22, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- As British Prime Minister John Major prepares for his summit with President Clinton on Wednesday in Washington, those around him are confident that the relationship between the two men, and the countries they represent, will develop smoothly despite indications to the contrary since Mr. Clinton was elected.

Mr. Major will be the first European head of government to meet the new president. To some here, being at the head of the line suggests a favorable disposition on Mr. Clinton's part.

If so, it would be the first overt positive gesture toward Britain from the new occupant of the White House. There have been a few negative ones.

The British were upset in January by a suggestion from Secretary of State Warren Christopher that permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council should be given to Germany and Japan, in view of their immense economies and growing influence in the world.

The British feared that, should such a thing occur, their own influence in the world would be diminished. Worse, bringing in Germany and Japan might edge Britain out of its prestigious seat, which it has held as one of the victorious Allies of World War II since the founding of the United Nations.

(France, the other European country with one of the five permanent Security Council seats, was equally negative to Mr. Christopher's suggestion.)

The Security Council issue has faded by now, having been subsumed by more critical business at the United Nations specifically the peace plan for Bosnia put together by the United Nations' Cyrus R. Vance and the European Community's Lord David Owen.

Initially the Clinton administration responded negatively, both to Lord Owen's attempts to generate pressure for the plan via the media and to the peace plan itself. The plan proposes dividing Bosnia into 10 separate, largely autonomous sectors along ethnic lines, a proposal which U.S. diplomats felt rewarded the Bosnian Serbs for their aggression.

The administration wanted to take a tougher line.

This, a spokesman for the prime minister's office said, made the British possibly even more nervous than Mr. Christopher's suggestion on the Security Council. There are British troops in Bosnia. Britain fears that they would be among the first to feel a Serbian response to any U.S.-initiated military action.

Mr. Major even wrote a letter to the Mr. Clinton setting out his reasons for moving cautiously. Evidently his arguments were effective, for Washington's eventual position on Bosnia had little of the expected bellicosity in it. Nor did it encourage the hopes of Bosnian Muslims that the United States would come to their rescue or have the arms embargo lifted in order to give them a fighting chance against the heavily armed Serbs.

Said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd: "No one in Bosnia is now going to expect the United States to intervene and impose a solution by force, or arm one side to continue the conflict."

A high government official said the prime minister was pleased by Washington's response and would be happier still if other issues of potential conflict resolved themselves similarly.

Another such issue would be the trade talks involving the European Community and the United States under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Trade is high on the agenda for Wednesday's talks. It is certainly high on Europe's agenda; for weeks the EC has been haunted by the specter of a trade war.

The Clinton administration has been quicker on the trigger on trade matters than its predecessor, and is thought to be more protectionist generally. It has shown a ready inclination to resort to sanctions against Europeans when it decides they are engaging in unfair trading practices.

Already Trade Secretary Mickey Kantor has applied anti-dumping duties on $2 billion worth of steel imports, much of it from Europe, and has threatened to prevent EC telecommunications companies from competing for U.S. federal contracts.

More recently, President Clinton reportedly ordered a review of the U.S.-EC agreement on limiting subsidies to the aircraft industry. Mr. Clinton is said to believe the EC is unfairly subsidizing the manufacture of the Airbus. This craft, which competes with the products of such beleaguered U.S. manufacturers as Boeing, is produced by a European consortium of which British Aerospace has a 20 percent interest.

And, in the area of investment, the new Clinton proposals to squeeze more taxes out of foreign companies with operations in the United States will hit no country as hard as it will hit Britain, which has more invested in the United States than any other country.

Then there is the potential irritant of Northern Ireland, and Mr. Clinton's election promise to appoint a special envoy to look into the conflict there. The prime minister's office would not say whether Mr. Major would raise the issues, especially in view of the number of weightier matters the two have to get through.

Still, nobody ruled it out.

The British are wary of any political gestures toward those in the United States and Northern Ireland who oppose British policy there, or question the British government's interpretation of the situation.

Still, Mr. Major's office has expressed a willingness to accept an envoy from the White House to the province, so long as the envoy is someone who will not "meddle."

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