A Widening Transatlantic Rift

Despite probable GATT approval, Europeans see Washington setting an isolationist course

MOST Europeans are heaving sighs of relief now that the United States Congress seems set to ratify GATT.

But the Republican congressional landslide Nov. 8 still has Europe on edge.

Even America's steadfast allies show concern that recent US debates - over not only the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, but also the Balkans - may encourage the superpower to shrink from the world stage.

``The alliance of Main Street and Wall Street has hoisted politicians into decisionmaking positions of Congress whose instinct is nationally minded, not internationally minded,'' political commentator Theo Sommer wrote in the Die Zeit weekly about the Republican takeover of Congress.

If isolationists prevail in US policymaking, the implications could be serious for the entire Continent, suggests Gunter Behrmann, a political scientist in Potsdam, near Berlin.

Since World War II, ``the US has been a key factor of the stability of Western Europe. Europe by itself couldn't have acted as one,'' Mr. Behrmann says. ``If domestic problems grow worse in the US, the American foreign policy engagement will decline.''

Many in the European cultural and political elite view American ratification of GATT as an important test measuring the US's commitment to its world role.

The agreement, which 123 nations have signed, would lower worldwide trade barriers for manufactured goods and agricultural products. The US, the world's largest exporter, could be among the countries that benefit most from the pact, slated to take effect Jan. 1, 1995. But so far Britain and Germany are the only Group of Seven industrialized states that have formally approved the treaty.

Much to Europe's relief, a compromise between US President Clinton and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas, announced Nov. 23, virtually guarantees GATT ratification now that Congress has reconvened for a vote on the treaty.

But many European leaders are nonetheless guarded about the key provision in the US GATT compromise. To ensure Republican cooperation, Mr. Clinton authorized the creation of a watchdog panel that will review decisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which will serve as arbiter in GATT-related disputes. The watchdog panel could trigger US withdrawal from the WTO if it rules that three WTO decisions have unfairly gone against the US in any five-year span.

Generally, the Europeans say such a watchdog panel undermines the WTO's ability to mediate trade disputes, especially if other nations follow the US example.

``It doesn't send a good signal,'' Peter Guilford, a European Union commission spokesman, told reporters at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Though reassuring, GATT approval isn't likely to soothe EU nerves that have been shaken by recent US pronouncements on Bosnia. Prior to a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Senator Dole riled European leaders on Nov. 28 by saying that ``The British and the French, and primarily the British'' were to blame for ``a complete breakdown'' of NATO over Bosnia.

In addition, some Europeans worry that the US is setting a dangerous precedent by taking unilateral action in the Balkans, particularly the recent decision to stop enforcing the arms embargo against the Bosnian combatants.

``The rift between US words and deeds is widening, and consideration for the allies is dwindling. Washington's engagement in world politics is losing clarity,'' said Mr. Sommer, the commentator. ``The US is linked [via trade] to the world more than ever. It would be all the more incomprehensible if it now withdrew into its own shell.''

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