THE trip seemed to start without a certain spark.
No serious problems hung on the horizon, no foul-ups. But for Bill Clinton's star turn on the world stage, his shot at asserting world leadership after a year of mostly domestic preoccupations, it lacked a bit of dazzle.
Perhaps it was Secretary of State Warren Christopher dozing in the audience as President Clinton gave his opening speech laying out his vision of a new architecture for the security of Europe.
Perhaps it was the well-groomed and polite group of students chosen to fill the 15th-century room where Clinton spoke. They listened attentively enough, but offered little reaction during the speech.
The president was ``tired, but cranking,'' in the phrase of Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, on his first day in Brussels.
Before long, he was cranking indeed.
After the Jan. 10 NATO meetings, Mr. Christopher noted that ``sitting there in the room, one could see and feel the re-emergence of US leadership in this post-cold-war period. This was President Clinton's summit.'' The US initiatives that dominated the agenda were endorsed ``enthusiastically and unanimously,'' he said.
This was the smoothest-running and most unanimous NATO meeting that many officials could remember.
Part of Clinton's revival by Jan. 10, perhaps, was sumo wrestling. As he mingled with fellow leaders of the free world, he had sumo on his mind, telling British Prime Minister John Major that he had watched it on television the previous night and expounding to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that even he and Clinton, the two most strapping heads of government present, were not big enough for sumo. Alas.
After his opening speech and appearance before a crowd in Brussels' Grand-Place, Clinton made an unscheduled stop at a small restaurant for decaffeinated coffee and a chat with the surprised clientele, just as he had so often in New Hampshire and Iowa.
But in Brussels, the seat of NATO and the EU, people are used to motorcades and international leaders. Clinton can draw a crowd and holds some fascination as a young and dynamic leader, but not the enthusiasm he generates in some crowds.
The following night, he went for a walk along the slippery cobblestones of old Brussels, stopping in a toy store for some shopping. Here he gathered an impromptu crowd of perhaps 300 people.
Bosnia hung like a cloud over the conscience of the meeting. Leaders here renewed their threat, a little strengthened, to relieve the siege of Sarajevo with airstrikes, but NATO has a credibility gap now.
Just a couple years ago, many assumed that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact would mean that NATO would gradually become obsolete, that pan-European institutions would become the main forums for security. Meanwhile, security itself would fade out of the front rank of galvanizing forces.
But now, Central Europeans are clamoring just as much to enter NATO as they are the European Union.