Major's Washington visit is likely to be sticky wicket

April 01, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Sometimes, it just comes down to personality.

One man likes Elvis and college basketball. The other is an opera buff and cricket fan.

Since President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major differ on even such basics as music and sports, maybe it is all the harder for them to agree on the important things. So last month, there was the spectacle of the two leaders playing telephone tag for a week before they could agree to talk long-distance.

No wonder the historic "special relationship" between the U.S. and Great Britain seems to be on the rocks. Next week, though, the two men will meet at the White House, to discuss the state of the world and the state of the frayed link between Britain and the United States.

"I don't think there is any way that Bill Clinton and John Major will ever really buddy up to one another," says Donald Watt, a retired professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

"That's the trouble right now. Bill Clinton has been a swinger. And John Major has been a square all of his life."

Mr. Major, who arrives in Washington tomorrow, is to meet with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Defense Department officials and with the Republican leaders of Congress. But the most important sessions are scheduled to take place Tuesday, when the prime minister meets with Mr. Clinton.

It's not just personality that divides the two leaders and two countries: It's also personal and national interests.

Mr. Clinton doesn't have peacekeepers on the ground in Bosnia. Mr. Major does.

Mr. Clinton has to play to an Irish-American audience that welcomed his White House invitation to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams last month.

Mr. Major, fighting to keep his slender parliamentary majority, has to keep in line those Northern Ireland politicians who favor continued union with Great Britain, while trying to forge a permanent peace with the Irish Republican Army.

When Mr. Adams went to the White House, the British political establishment and media went bonkers. A member of Parliament belonging to Mr. Major's Conservative Party called Mr. Clinton a "third-rate party politician."

The Times wrote off a half-century of British-American links with one headline: "So Long, Nice While It Lasted."

Indeed, Downing Street insiders have all but relegated the term "special relationship" to the trash bin.

"I can't remember when a British minister uttered the phrase," one British source says.

"It's a phrase that tends not to be in our lexicon," he adds. "The rela- tionship with the United States is unique and extremely close. It has many, many strands to it. That is the case today as it was 10 years ago and 20 years ago."

The truth is, Mr. Major's visit comes when the British are feeling especially vulnerable and introspective.

Last week, 700 diplomats, businessmen, politicians, journalists and academics participated in a conference on "Britain in the World," at which there were many speeches -- but no plans for the future.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger provided a wake-up call when he said the "special relationship" the U.S. once had with Britain should be transferred to Europe as a whole.

"I regret that it isn't what it used to be," Mr. Kissinger said. "The relationship was not particularly special in my day.

The British role did not depend on the weight it could throw

around, but the British made themselves extremely useful."

When it worked, the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Great Britain could be wonderful.

There were Roosevelt and Churchill exchanging 1,700 cables and guiding two nations in World War II.

There was Prime Minister Harold Macmillan playing the wise elder statesman to help an eager young leader in Washington, President John F. Kennedy.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan forged some hard bargains. American support helped Britain defeat Argentina in the 1982 Falklands war. And the 1986 American assault on Libya was launched from British bases.

Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Mrs. Thatcher, wrote that whenever the prime minister met Ronald Reagan, "I sometimes thought I was directing 'Gone With The Wind.' "

Of course, there have been splits -- the worst occurring in 1956, when President Eisenhower forced the British, French and Israelis to end their invasion of Egypt.

Now, there is the uncertain relationship between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Major.

It started badly with the British government searching its files during the 1992 presidential campaign for any dirt it could it find on candidate Clinton's student days at Oxford.

But last month, the two leaders acted like a bickering couple.

In addition to the game of telephone tag, Mr. Clinton decided that he couldn't find time after all to attend Britain's celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of V-E day.

The celebrations will bring the largest number of world leaders to London since the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

Says a British source: "We shall be happy to welcome Vice President Gore."

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