Major in Washington

CALL it two leaders letting bygones be bygones.

The venues for this week's meetings between British Prime Minister John Major and President Clinton were clearly meant to signal that the ``special relationship'' between the United States and Britain is intact.

Yet that relationship, at least as laid out by Winston Churchill - the common historical and cultural ties that bind the two countries - is not in danger. It has survived more-difficult disagreements than those between Messrs. Major and Clinton over Bosnia policy, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams's visit to New York, or the Conservative Party's aid to President Bush during the 1992 campaign.

Rather, the two leaders needed to show that each had overcome initial doubts about the other generated by political and policy disagreements during Clinton's first year in office.

During his visit, Major indicated that his ire over Clinton's decision to allow Mr. Adams to attend a conference in New York had passed. And after months of resisting the idea of airstrikes over Bosnia, the prime minister expressed strong support for NATO's action this week, after two F-16s shot down four Bosnian Serb jets violating the no-fly zone.

Politically, Major is the weaker of the two men. The perks Clinton extended - the trip to Pittsburgh, where Major's father and grandfather are said to have worked during the late 1870s, the flight back to Washington with the president in Air Force One, and the overnight stay in the White House (the first sitting British prime minister to do so since Churchill) - stand in marked contrast to Major's support for President Bush during the 1992 campaign. It remains to be seen if Clinton's gestures will help bolster Major. He has been under siege even from fellow Conservatives, who accuse him of weak leadership in the face of several political scandals.

And Major's reception could send a reassuring trans-Atlantic signal to Washington in the face of Asia-first pronouncements last year by Clinton's foreign policy team.

If the US-Britain ``special relationship'' has held together in large part because of common geopolitical interests stemming from the cold war, Russia's rising nationalism may be the glue that helps shore up post-cold-war ties: Both leaders focused on the need to back Boris Yeltsin and political and economic reform in Russia.

The Clinton-Major meeting was heartening to see: Now, to await the test's practical results.

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