Clinton-Blair Chemistry May Fuse US-British Ties

But France vote won't stop US-Paris feud

There was a time when the prospect of a Labour Party victory in a British election would have sent shudders through the American foreign-policy establishment.

Not any more.

Gone are the days when Labour stood for the nationalization of industries, advocated nuclear disarmament, and questioned the presence of US military bases on British soil.

Labour made a radical shift to the center and embraced conservative issues, la the Democrats under President Clinton. And its expected win in today's election could in fact inject fresh vitality into already close US-British ties.

One key reason is that, unlike current Prime Minister John Major, Labour leader Tony Blair is likely to steer Britain closer to Europe. "As far as the United States is concerned, [that] will be a good thing," says Kendall Myers, a professor of European affairs at Johns Hopkins University here.

The US, which has 100,000 troops in Europe is looking to its NATO allies to assume more responsibility for European security. Thus it favors a strong Europe.

France is also holding elections in coming weeks, but experts and officials see little prospect for an up-tick in Franco-US relations after the early parliamentary election called by French President Jacques Chirac.

Though sound at their core, they say, ties between the US and France could remain bedeviled by nettlesome feuds irrespective of whether Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic party or its rival leftist coalition wins in two rounds of voting in May and June.

US experts watching the British elections say a Labour victory could boost British-American ties. One is a positive chemistry that developed between Mr. Blair and Clinton during Blair's visit to Washington earlier this year.

"The special relationship between the US and UK has traditionally been defined by personal relationships" - President Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, says Simon Serfaty, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Relations here.

"Blair and Clinton have hit it off quite well," he observes.

Their kinship is bolstered by like political strategies - weaning their parties away from leftward orientations and into the center.

By contrast, Clinton is widely believed to have never moved beyond a cool rapport with Mr. Major - despite what many US officials regard as Major's able conduct of transatlantic cooperation, especially on the US effort to broker peace in Northern Ireland.

On another level, many US officials have been perturbed by divisions in Major's Conservative Party over Britain joining the proposed European Monetary Union (EMU) slated for 1999.

US officials are encouraged, however, by what they believe will be a more consistent stance by Blair on Britain's ties to Europe. Blair has taken a wait-and-see position on a single European currency, but his party is seen as more open to joining Europe's political and economic union.

As in Britain, the EMU is a central issue in the French elections. Chirac faces an ebb in popularity and record unemployment.

But he's gambling his party can keep a parliamentary majority so he could pursue austerity measures required for EMU membership.

Whatever the outcome, experts believe, tensions will persist in Franco-US ties. One hot issue is a feud over who will lead NATO's Naples-based southern command. France rejoined NATO's military structure in April and says the post should go to a European. The US insists it will be filled by an American.

Also nettlesome: France's trade with Iran, its support for lifting UN sanctions on Iraq, its pro-Arab stance in Mideast peace efforts, and its rivalry with the US for international arms sales.

France, Dr. Serfaty explains, believes it can trim unemployment by boosting exports. It also sees strong Arab ties as a way of safeguarding oil imports and keeping a lid on extremism in its own large Muslim population.

"For the French, these are vital issues and not just a matter of commercial greed. It's a matter of political stability and internal order," says Serfaty. "There's a high level of vulnerability."

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