A British gentleman

HE travels about 150,000 miles a year. He lives out of suitcases in hotel suites, and works out of airplanes and limousines. He takes calls from foreign capitals in the middle of the night and has conferences at 3 o'clock in the morning. A Welsh boy who went to Cambridge on a scholarship, he has been soldier, lawyer, politician, Cabinet minister; was made a knight; and now is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's point man in foreign affairs.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, Britain's foreign secretary, has the doggedness of a bulldog in pursuing his country's interests abroad, but disguises that tenacity with the rumpled gentility of the British upper classes. He has a mind sharp as Sheffield steel, but masks it with an owlish expression as he peers through thick spectacle lenses.

Some people think Sir Geoffrey should be Britain's next Conservative Party prime minister. They say that while others may have been given credit, it was he, in earlier Cabinet roles, who was responsible for turning Britain's economy around. But the hopes may be vain and Mrs. Thatcher may, as others surmise, be seeking to groom another, younger man as her successor.

None of this was discussed at a breakfast with Sir Geoffrey and a few journalists in New York the other day. That would be indiscreet. But with the understatement and dry humor that are his trademarks, he offered the thoughtful perspective on foreign affairs which continues to make Britain a significant player in international politics.

Central to Britain's foreign policy, as it is to the United States', is the relationship with the Soviet Union. The British see hope in recent developments in Moscow, but remain careful and vigilant. The British detect more candor, more openness, in Moscow. Sir Geoffrey recalls that in the bad old days when he went to see Andrei Gromyko for a two-hour meeting, Mr. Gromyko ``had an opening statement of an hour and 40 minutes.'' Now there is give-and-take.

In the Soviet city of Kiev earlier this year, Sir Geoffrey visited a machine-tool factory beset by regulation and bureaucratic paper work. `If I were Gorbachev,'' he said to the plant manager, ``and you could make one request of me, what would it be?'' Easy, replied the manager, ``give us more freedom to run our own business.'' That demand is a healthy one.

``But,'' says Sir Geoffrey, the ``process of change is not irreversible.'' What that means is that Mikhail Gorbachev could be dumped and everything could be turned around again. ``Existing security arrangements,'' says Sir Geoffrey, ``should not be changed.'' In other words, the British recommend approaching Moscow with an open mind, but with vigilance, and all the time keeping your powder dry.

He thinks that it is unrealistic to expect a sudden breakthrough or turnaround in the Soviet economy. It will be a long haul. He sees Mr. Gorbachev's recent plaint that the reformists are ``losing the game'' as part of nudging and pushing for greater effort that will have to take place time and again.

Britain takes the same long view on South Africa. That doesn't mean Sir Geoffrey condones apartheid. He thinks it is detestable. But he doesn't subscribe to the ``Jericho school of thought'' - that one last heave will overthrow the system. ``We will live with the problems of South Africa for a long time.'' His government opposes economic sanctions on grounds of their ineffectiveness.

What about the Anglo-American alliance after the Reagan administration? Britain, he says, will work happily with whoever becomes president. Vice-President George Bush has met Thatcher on a number of ceremonial occasions. But has Mrs. Thatcher ever met Michael Dukakis? Sir Geoffrey is not sure, but he himself hasn't.

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