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Can U.S. Reassume Role of Europe's Father Figure? : Diplomacy: The European family appears dysfunctional. And the most troublesome adolescents are disinclined to believe that Daddy knows best.

January 09, 1994|Martin Walker | Martin Walker is U.S. bureau chief for Britain's "The Guardian," and author of "The Cold War: A History," to be published by Holt in April

WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton enters this week on his uncomfortable inheritance as the father-figure for the dysfunctional European family.

U.S. Presidents have always had to treat the Western European allies as a particularly troublesome adolescent--big and strong enough to stand on its own feet, but still needing the assurance of paternal control.

Now the European family has widened to include the frightened children of Eastern Europe, huddling for NATO's protection against their age-old fears of the Russian bogey man. And in Russia, the United States is taking responsibility for an autistic young adult, potentially powerful, but terrifyingly unpredictable, barely in control and still unformed.

Clinton got to the White House by attacking George Bush as "a foreign-policy President" who did too little for Americans at home. Now he arrives in Europe today for the most important foreign trip of his presidency so far, believing that much of his domestic agenda depends on his ability to calm and stabilize a Europe that some of his advisers fear is unraveling.

This is not just the unending war in Bosnia--itself a standing denunciation of any grandiose plans for a new North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission. But the dangerous and new equation is plain enough. Most of Clinton's plans for domestic U.S. reform--and his hopes for a quiescent international scene--depend on Russia's orderly transition to a free-market democracy.

From the anticipated savings in the U.S. defense budget to maintaining the U.N. Security Council consensus, the United States has grown accustomed to Russia as a partner rather than a rival, and Clinton's worst fear would be any revival of the old Cold War antagonisms.

At the same time, relations with the traditional NATO allies of Western Europe are ragged, bruised by the arguments over Bosnia and the hard-fought compromise over world trade in the General Agreement Tariffs and Trade.

"It's hand-holding time again for Europe," sighed one senior State Department official last week. "A lot of us thought that the end of the Cold War meant we would not have to play the psychological role of Daddy again. But the Europeans still need their American comfort blanket, and I guess we have to remind America that the stability of Europe is a vital U.S. strategic interest."

So Clinton leaves with a four-part agenda: to mollify his European allies; to revitalize NATO; to reassure the worried Eastern Europeans, and to chart the West's relations with the problematic new Russia that is emerging after last month's parliamentary elections.

As a result, Clinton's first voyage across the Atlantic since taking office is three parts symbolism to one part substance. But the one substantial new policy he brings is of crucial importance to all the rest: His new compromise new proposal for the future of NATO.

Dubbed "Partnership for Peace," this plan seeks to offer Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics a kind of country membership of NATO, a structure for cooperation pointedly designed to fend off Russian fears of isolation by extending the NATO alliance up to Russia's borders.

This is a highly contentious proposal, which has left Poland's Lech Walesa warning that without a firm NATO military umbrella, Eastern Europe could face "a major tragedy--another Yugoslavia." And back in the United States, a fractious debate has begun over the new foreign-policy priority of doing nothing which could complicate Boris N. Yeltsin's relations with his generals, or provoke nationalist sentiment in Russia.

Strobe Talbott, just nominated to be the new deputy Secretary of State, while maintaining his stewardship of policies toward Russia and the former Soviet republics, is the main author of this policy. His long friendship with Clinton gives him unrivaled access and influence with the President.

Talbott believes that keeping Russia on track toward a free-market democracy, and as a cooperative partner in world affairs, is such a central U.S. strategic interest that other issues, from Eastern Europe to the increasing assertiveness of Russia toward its "near abroad," must take second place.

"Partnership For Peace"--known to the diplomatic world as P4P--is almost certain to be approved by the NATO summit. The European allies are so relieved to be back on top of the U.S. agenda, after the Asian flirtations of Clinton's first year, that they are silencing their doubts. Any sign of firm U.S. leadership for NATO, the British and Germans agree, is better than last year's casual dismissal by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that U.S. policy had been "too Eurocentric for too long."

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