The Vancouver Summit

April 05, 1993

In the 50 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt met Josef Stalin at Tehran, leaders of the United States and (Soviet) Russia have come together two dozen times to deal with the military and ideological confrontations of the Cold War. Moods varied from the menace of the Kennedy-Khrushchev face-off in Vienna to the no-nukes mysticism of the Reagan-Gorbachev seance at Reykjavik. But always, the numbers on the table concerned warheads and missile range and throw-weight and all the arcana of nuclear war gamesmanship. It was a mighty struggle with an outward show of rivalry and an unspoken need to manage the world through a strangely stabilizing power duopoly.

This time the summit in Vancouver over the weekend was unlike any other that came before. On the agenda for Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin were numbers -- plenty of them -- but they were about economic assistance and debt restructuring and people exchanges and opening up trade and markets. The ideological debate was over, with the man from Moscow preaching democracy and his "struggle against Communism." Military matters were concerned with dismantling, not buildup, and the regional feuds and wars that rumble the world.

The new American president pledged himself and, by implication, his country to an extraordinary "partnership" aimed at preserving the beleaguered Yeltsin government against its regressive adversaries. He not only put $1.6 billion in bilateral assistance on the line but promised a lot more and signaled his intention to remove from U.S. lawbooks many of the Cold War statutes that today complicate the American-Russian relationship.

There were big stakes in the spectacle at Vancouver. In only three weeks, the Russian people go to the polls to decide Mr. Yeltsin's political fate. Mr. Clinton could have held back, wary of involvement in internal Russian affairs or tying himself too closely to one individual. Instead, he decided to lead and orchestrate Western support. Before the April 25 referendum, the Group of Seven industrial democracies will be drafting even more ambitious plans to help the struggling Russian economy.

Mr. Clinton's commitment to Mr. Yeltsin, like his domestic economic stimulus plan, is the hallmark of a single-minded leader willing to take chances. There are dangers implicit in both strategies. If Mr. Clinton prevails in getting the bulk of his stimulus through Congress and the economy fails to respond, he is in trouble. Similarly, if Mr. Yeltsin is overthrown, there will be second-guessers a-plenty about the Vancouver summit.

Yet courage is a touchstone of leadership. Mr. Yeltsin's credentials were etched atop a tank in defiance of hardliners. Now Mr. Clinton is writing his own record as a risk-taker and seems willing to live with the results. Perhaps he realizes that the American and Russian people have never fought one another and, though divided by circumstance and ideology, have effectively kept the world from blowing apart in the half-century since Tehran.

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