Diplomatic Deftness Wins Applause

President appears to handle complex issues well, but has yet to face a foreign-affairs crisis. BUSH'S IMAGE ABROAD

GEORGE BUSH's modestly successful trip to Europe this month confirmed already emerging views of the new US President as a world leader: 1.He is a deft diplomat who deals successfully with European leaders under complex conditions.

2.The American clout behind him has eroded, demanding more skilled and agile leadership.

Robert Putnam, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says that Mr. Bush ``seems to be able to play in this more complicated game'' better than other recent presidents.

The economic summit in Paris and his visit to Poland and Hungary the week before made up Bush's third trip abroad as President. Although he took no striking initiatives on a scale with his proposal at the NATO summit in late May of a 20 percent reduction in United States troops in Europe, the terms of the economic summit emerged without resort to heavy-handedness, just as the Bush administration wanted. The focus was kept almost entirely away from economics, where American deficits rankle the other industrial democracies.

Bush has yet to be tested by a serious foreign crisis for the United States. But after six months in office, the figure he cuts in the world is taking shape. He is personally well suited to dealing with European heads of government. He can hold his own in discussing the details of policy, something that Reagan was not adept at.

European leaders typically share Bush's career background as a veteran civil servant and government insider, says Dr. Rockman. Much of the weight Bush carries overseas, however, depends on his political strength at home. His 70 percent approval ratings from the American public are well above Reagan's at the comparable point in his presidency.

But Bush still has not made a very strong impression on the European public, according to survey analysts. He stands in the shadow of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, especially in West Germany. When Bush visited in late May, 3 percent of West Germans surveyed by the Gallup Organization's German affiliate picked his visit as the most important event or topic of the week. When Mr. Gorbachev arrived two weeks later, 25 percent rated his visit as the week's top event.

In Britain, Bush and Gorbachev are closely matched in terms of public confidence, although opinion regarding Bush is not yet strong.

President Reagan was not very popular in Britain, says Norman Webb, managing director of Gallup Britain. ``The great charm of his personality did not come through here as it did in the US, says Mr. Webb. France warmed slowly to Reagan, but he became as popular there as in the US.

French views of Bush are positive, but highly undecided. He is perceived as closer to European positions on East-West relations than was Reagan, says Michel Brule of BVA, an opinion research firm in Viroflay, France.

To Bush's disadvantage, America is weaker as leader of the West than it once was. The US remains thoroughly dominant in military power, but that factor is losing in importance to economics. American economic power has eroded because of budget and trade deficits, the growing economic power of the Japanese, and the increasing confidence of Europe as it moves toward economic unity.

The budget deficit weakens US influence in two ways, notes I.M. Destler, a political scientist and international trade expert at the University of Maryland. First, the US has less money to spend overseas, hence the modesty of Bush's offer of $125 million in new aid to Poland and Hungary. Second, Mr. Destler says, Washington has less standing to ask countries to take sometimes painful steps for the common good when it has failed to do so against its own budget deficits.

``We simply don't have the clout we used to have,'' says international debt consultant Norman Bailey.

This demands a different way of dealing in world affairs, says Robert Hunter, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: ``We're going to have to be more like a normal power, meaning we're going to have to be smarter.''

It means less reliance on grand gestures and symbolic leadership, which was Reagan's strength, and more on skill and follow-through.

Bush gets better notices, so far, than did either Reagan or Jimmy Carter for deftness and sophistication.

``I was impressed, and I think the Europeans were impressed, by Bush's ability to make progress in East-West relations, for instance, without attempting to affix a made-in-America label to everything,'' says Dr. Putnam, who was a member of Carter's NSC.

``He's sharing the leadership,'' Mr. Hunter says. The European leaders had ``real doubts'' about Bush up to May 29, he explains. But at the NATO summit, the President's troop cut proposal ``gave them what they needed.''

The latest trip was a more modest American success: Bush managed to put the spotlight on the environment without being pushed on the issue of disproportionate carbon dioxide emissions in the US; he was able to keep East-West relations in the forefront despite an attempt by some leaders to put more emphasis on North-South issues; and the American plan for easing third-world debt was approved by the other summiteers in spite of their skepticism.

More contentious subjects - such as US deficits, exchange rates, and trade action against Japan - were studiously avoided.

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