Sour Grace Notes to Summitry

January 18, 1994

President Clinton's eight-day journey through Europe ended on a sour grace note with the resignation of Yesor T. Gaidar, chief advocate of "shock therapy" reforms for Russia's tottering economy, from Boris Yeltsin's cabinet. His departure came just one day after a Clinton-Yeltsin summit marked by fulsome words about the commitment of both leaders to Mr. Gaidar's kind of bold innovation.

This, unfortunately, was typical of the mismatch between Mr. Clinton's sunny, upbeat, let's-make-a-deal diplomacy and the bleak, befuddling realities of present-day Europe.

Even as he was reiterating the U.S. pledge to the defense of Europe, France was remaking NATO into a Gaullist model -- one in which the U.S. gives way to a Europe-oriented military structure.

Even as he pushed his Partnership for Peace proposal on Eastern European leaders seeking full membership in NATO, an obvious split emerged between the West's intent to accept new members one by one and Mr. Yeltsin's idea of a simultaneous entry by all former Soviet bloc states -- an idea that would render the alliance meaningless.

Even as Mr. Clinton repeated his administration's dubious readiness to start dropping bombs on Bosnia, his allies were either posturing belligerently or ducking for cover.

Even his welcome proclamation of Ukraine's agreement to eliminate its strategic nuclear weaponry was premature and rather breathless.

Perhaps most troubling was the state of Russian economic reform. Between last month's triumph of ultra-nationalists and Communists in parliamentary elections and the president's arrival in Moscow, Washington undercut the reformers when Strobe Talbott, soon to be deputy secretary of State, said Russia needed "less shock and more therapy." The White House beat a hasty pull-back but the damage was done. However much Mr. Clinton extolled reform, Mr. Yeltsin's adversaries knew the Americans were less than stalwart.

As if to reinforce the point, Secretary of State Warren Christopher belittled the import of Mr. Gaidar's departure. The result, we fear, could be the return of skyrocketing inflation, the entrenchment of regressive elements in the actual management of the economy and an end to any real hope for massive outside investment, private or institutional.

A trip to Europe by any American president at this juncture would be destined to be difficult. This country is drawing down from NATO even as the forces of revanchism gather strength in Moscow and threaten to undermine the "mature" American-Russian relationship extolled by Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Clinton tried his best. He always does. But his personality, his background, his lack of a seasoned world view made his presence in Europe discordant and unsettling.

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