Britain Takes the Offensive In Wooing GOP Washington

Following two prickly years with Clinton, Britain sends a `Machiavellian' envoy to strengthen ties with US

BRITONS are nervous that the eye of Newt may soon be cast across the Atlantic, fouling attempts to bolster relations with the United States.

London is sending a new ambassador to Washington, Sir John Kerr, to take over for Sir Robin Renwick and get on better terms with the White House. The Clinton administration has been on touchy terms with Britain's ruling Conservatives ever since party officials advised the Bush campaign in the 1992 election that Bill Clinton went on to win.

The Republican ascendancy in Congress may complicate the attempt. British government sources say Mr. Kerr also will have to establish good relations with dominant Republican politicians, who are led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Mr. Renwick spent much of his time in the last two years trying to cope with what Philip Windsor, a foreign policy analyst at the London School of Economics, calls President Clinton's ``unhelpful line'' toward Britain.

Renwick arrived in Washington in August 1991 in the afterglow of the Gulf war, in which Britain had solidly supported the US. But very early in the Clinton presidency, British officials privately concede, things began to deteriorate.

``London had great difficulty trying to persuade the administration that its approach to the Bosnian crisis was unhelpful from a European standpoint,'' Mr. Windsor says. ``Then Clinton brushed aside British objections to the visits to the US by Gerry Adams, president of the political wing of the IRA [Irish Republican Army].''

The latest difficulty to arise in the ``special relationship'' between London and Washington is the triumph of the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

``In the Reagan era,'' Windsor says, ``we had to deal with an imperial presidency. Now we face an imperial Congress, and getting its measure is not going to be easy.''

Even Republican supporters in Europe are worried about current Washington trends. John Wood, London-based co-chairman of Republicans Abroad, believes there is a ``bumpy ride ahead.''

``The special relationship is as frayed as it has ever been in my 30 years in Britain,'' Mr. Wood says. ``The Clinton administration has not paid real attention to Britain's needs.'' The rise of Mr. Gingrich seems likely to create a new set of problems, Wood believes - at least for a while.

``Gingrich is not famed for his grip of foreign policy,'' Wood says. ``On the other hand, the Republican Party has traditionally favored a close relationship with Britain, and matters may improve over time.''

British officials are concerned that Gingrich and Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas will take a broad-brush approach to Europe, giving London little chance to cultivate closer US ties.

DOUGLAS HURD, the foreign secretary, insists that London-Washington ties ``remain strong.'' But many Foreign Office officials see Kerr's appointment as ambassador as an attempt to jump-start the relationship.

Kerr, who is stepping down as ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, is regarded by colleagues as perhaps the smartest of Britain's senior ambassadors. They call him ``Machiavelli,'' after the Italian Renaissance prince renowned for devious and ruthless political maneuvering.

Windsor says the US will continue to press Britain to hurry the peace process in Northern Ireland. But Prime Minister Major may be more concerned about likely pressure from Washington for London to get more enthusiastic about the EU.

``Clinton will probably go on pushing Britain toward federalism, if only to tidy his own mind about Europe,'' Windsor says.

But a tighter EU with protectionist leanings could make the US more receptive to Britain's cautious approach. ``Britain would gain favor in a Republican-dominated Congress if it stood out against European protectionism.'' Wood says.

``Ambassador Kerr's greatest problem over the next two years,'' he adds, ``will be the almost total power and policy vacuum in the American executive branch.''

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