On to Vancouver

April 01, 1993

President Clinton's meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin this weekend brings him to the forefront of world diplomacy. Though he won the White House focused "like a laser" on the domestic economy, he has found himself enmeshed in foreign affairs. With the exception of his forthright championing of Mr. Yeltsin's survival, Mr. Clinton's record so far has been only so-so. He has essentially followed Bush administration policies, campaign criticism notwithstanding.

On Russia Mr. Clinton has displayed a boldness that he can pursue to good effect at the Vancouver summit. Well before Mr. Yeltsin's titanic and still inconclusive struggle with the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the new American president pledged an "aggressive and quite specific plan" of aid for the first democratically elected leader in 1,000 years of Russian history. This, despite his complaints about George Bush's adherence to Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Two key questions will dominate the coming summit. One will be whether Mr. Yeltsin can present a convincing case that his government, in the face of overwhelming economic problems and fierce political opposition, will be able to use a new infusion of Western aid to good effect. The other is whether Mr. Clinton can place his $700 million to $1 billion aid program plus much more in indirect, leveraged, private-sector assistance on a winning course through Congress.

Foreign aid is never popular on Capitol Hill. Still, with astute presidential leadership, the program coming out of the Vancouver summit has a good chance of enactment. There is every indication that the legislative branch is fully alerted to the dangers that a blow-up in the old Soviet Union would prolong the nuclear threat and undercut plans for vast savings in military expenditures.

Ever since the Vietnam war caused a flip-flop in political party attitudes toward foreign aid, the Democrats have been its chief critics and the Republicans its chief advocates. But with Mr. Clinton in the White House, Democratic opposition may wither. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ron Dellums is now saying that "if you can spend hundreds of billions to wage war. . . you can spend a few billion to wage peace." Last year, Mr. Dellums tried to block President Bush's Russian aid program until he increased aid to the cities.

Both the Vancouver summit and a follow-up meeting of finance and foreign ministers of the Group of Seven democracies are designed to set the stage for a Yeltsin victory in referendums scheduled for April 25. Obviously, if he loses all bets are off. And just as obviously, the new aid program must be a lot more effective than its predecessors to secure Congress' support in future years.

In designing his program, Mr. Clinton would be wise to shift the traditional focus from government-to-government aid to private-sector engagement. Unless U.S. business and volunteer organizations do their part to promote a free-market economy in Russia, the Yeltsin revolution may fail.

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