WASHINGTON — What a difference some time makes.
Openly divided over how to halt the ethnic mayhem in former Yugoslavia, at odds over a slew of trade issues, and uncertain about the future of NATO, the United States and Europe were sullen allies for much of President Clinton's first term.
But when senior European Union (EU) leaders came to Washington this week for a get-acquainted session with Madeleine Albright, Mr. Clinton's new secretary of state, both sides could take satisfaction in what many agree has been a marked upturn in the world's most powerful economic and defense partnership.
"There have been improvements," said Foreign Minister Hans Van Mierlo of Holland, the current president of the 15-nation EU, after he and European Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan met Ms. Albright on Tuesday. "We are trying to be more co-productive then we were before."
Simon Serfaty, an authority on US-European relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, attributes the upturn to the success in US-led Balkan peace efforts, agreements on enlarging and reforming NATO, and expanded cooperation in trade and other areas.
Furthermore, he says, the US has changed its attitude towards the EU. It now treats relations with the economic bloc with an importance distinct from that it gives individual members.
"Washington has acknowledged for the EU an identity that transcends that of its member states," says Dr. Sefarty. "That [identity] acknowledges the totality of the relations, not just trade."
This doesn't mean all is rosy. There are deep disagreements over policies toward Cuba, Iran, and Libya. There are lingering trade tiffs and growing EU pique at US heavy-handedness, most recently its veto of a second term for UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Details of NATO expansion and reform have yet to be settled, while frictions persist between the US and individual EU states, notably France.
But overall, the sniping and backbiting that had marred relations are gone. Instead, the US and EU have been working on a broad range of initiatives to promote democracy and international stability, boost cooperation on environmental protection, and aid health and education. They are also working to combat terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime.
In addition, the sides are pressing efforts to eliminate trade barriers and expand economic flows that already total $1.8 trillion.
These include concluding an accord to lift import tariffs on information technologies and market-opening agreements that will allow consumer goods approved by government regulators on one side of the Atlantic to be marketed without further scrutiny on the other.
The ties that bind
There is also a general agreement to improve coordination of policies toward the Middle East and China. "We have to invest in the relationship if we want to keep up the relationship," noted Mr. Van Mierlo.
Some experts date the upturn in relations to the US assumption of stewardship, from the Europeans, of the dispute-ridden Yugoslav peace efforts. Successful US-led airstrikes on the Bosnian Serbs, Washington's brokering of the 1995 Dayton accords, and American participation in the NATO peacekeeping force eased the most fractious transatlantic quarrel.
Also in December 1995, the US and EU signed an agreement in Madrid formalizing new areas for political and economic cooperation. Known as the New Transatlantic Agenda, the accord restored direction to a relationship marked by feuds, drift, and uncertainty over the US post-cold-war role in Europe, experts say.
Relations were further boosted last year by Washington's consent to NATO reforms that will allow European members to use alliance military assets - most of which are American - in operations that have no major US roles. The move was aimed at meeting aspirations among European states to upgrade their own defense arrangements.
Experts caution that, despite the improvement, failures to tackle persisting disagreements could send US-EU relations sliding again. The most critical issues:
* The Helms-Burton Act. This US law allows Americans to sue foreign firms that invest in properties confiscated by Havana after Cuba's 1959 Communist revolution. The EU condemns the act as US interference in other countries' foreign policies and has filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization. Clinton has twice suspended enforcement of the provision while negotiators try to settle the dispute.
* A US law allowing Washington to punish foreign firms that make major investments in the oil industries of Iran and Libya, states the US accuses of supporting terrorism. The EU is promising retaliation.
* Implementation of the Dayton accords. Wrangles persist over how far the international community should go in trying to reintegrate Bosnia.
* NATO expansion. The US wants to conclude a special agreement on expanding Russia's ties with the alliance before NATO admits formerly communist Eastern European states in 1999.
The Europeans believe the accord with Russia should be concluded after expansion.