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Europe: Clinton, Blair Mark New Phase In Anglo-American Ties

Prague, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - With U.S. President Bill Clinton in London for meetings today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, many commentators are heralding the beginning of a new era in their nations' trans-Atlantic ties.

During and after World War II, Britain and the United States enjoyed what some called a "special relationship." But ties haven't really been that strong since the heights reached by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who shared a personal rapport and a world view predicated above all on a belief in the need to battle communism.

In recent years, observers often noted the strained relations between Clinton and the previous British prime minister, John Major. Many believe Clinton was never able to forgive Major's assistance to then-President George Bush in the 1992 U.S. elections.

However, despite occasional disagreements over Bosnia and northern Ireland, personal tensions did not erupt into any significant bilateral disagreements, and the two capitals generally maintained close cooperation. Still, when Blair's Labour Party won a landslide victory in May 1 elections, Clinton was the first world leader to call him to offer congratulations.

Yesterday, a Blair spokesman said the new prime minister and the president "get on very well," adding that they have "a very keen mutual interest in certain issues". The spokesman identified three domestic issues -- education, job-creation, and reform of public assistance programs.

There are a remarkable number of parallels between the two men. Both are young -- Clinton 50 and Blair 44. Both attended top schools, including England's prestigious Oxford University. Both are married to successful lawyers and are lawyers themselves. Most significantly, both took liberal parties seen as out of touch with the political mainstream, moved them toward the center, and won their countries' top offices.

The political strategies used this year by Blair's "New Labour" so resembled those employed earlier by Clinton and his "New Democrats" that some British political pundits began calling him "Blinton". Several top Clinton advisers offered advice to the Labour campaign.

But despite personal rapport, shared political strategies and strategists, and common interests, it is unlikely the two leaders will resurrect the "special relationship" that existed in previous decades. Both London and Washington seem more interested in forging ties with Europe as a whole.

During a U.S. visit last week, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said that "Britain as a leading player in Europe would be a more useful partner to the United States than one that was drifting into being a marginalised offshore island." And U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an article yesterday marking the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, wrote that a "truly complete trans-Atlantic partnership in security and trade" must encompass all of Europe, including its "new market democracies" in the East.

One disagreement between London and Washington will likely surface at meetings today and tomorrow of NATO foreign ministers in Portugal. Britain's Cook is expected to call for an international force to remain in Bosnia until fuller compliance with the Dayton peace accords is attained. The U.S. has said that the force should be withdrawn when its mandate expires in just over one year.

But in diplomacy, camaraderie among leaders often filters down to affect bilateral relations, lessening disagreements and facilitating compromise. Clinton and Blair seem to have it in abundance.