Clinton's image-managers badly need a Tokyo result

Click to follow
BILL CLINTON plays for high stakes next week when he joins the leaders of the world's richest nations for their annual game of summitry. As grandiose as this may sound, the US President is being pressed by his own domestic constituency to give some indication that he can lead the world. US newspapers and television commentators have joined in a kind of national questioning: if for nearly a half century the man in the White House was considered the leader of the industrialised world, is this President up to the task?

It is ironic that after years of publicly downgrading the importance of G7 summits, Mr Clinton is being asked to prove himself in this relatively superficial environment. However, his advisers and those whom they consult are taking the task seriously in a last-minute drive to craft a programme that will portray Mr Clinton as both presidential and as a builder of international consensus. Given the poor economic prospects of most of the industrialised world, it will not be easy.

The preliminary ministerial meetings leading up to the summit have not been promising. The US proposals for a privatisation fund for Russia and for quantifiable measures to open Japan's markets have not been well received. In addition, the latest attempt to break the gridlock in world trade talks by negotiating a tariff reduction deal has also collapsed. Despite Mr Clinton's controversial decision to show resolve by ordering the weekend bombing of Iraq, few world leaders are convinced that he is made of steel. So it was not too surprising last week when Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister, threw down a gauntlet, tying a world trade deal to the lifting of US anti-dumping duties on steel.

To be fair, it is not possible for this President or for any one person to 'lead' in the traditional sense in a post-Cold War world based on consensus. Even Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George Bush, acknowledges this. 'Leadership now means persuading people it is in their interest to do things, rather than being able to just command them by weight of our economic strength,' he told the Wall Street Journal.

Mr Clinton's advisers are exploring two last-minute strategies. If a 'win' in Tokyo is what the President needs to shore up sagging public opinion polls, than renewed image- building may be the answer. This is one school of thought within the White House. Aides who have recently returned from Tokyo report a surprising residue of good will and interest among the Japanese public for the new, young US President. At a time when public support is strong for a change of leadership in Japan, there is intense interest in the generation change that has occurred in the US. Thus it is thought that Mr Clinton and his wife may be instant hits in Tokyo, if they stick to a carefully crafted script and come away with only modest outcomes. After all, the US economy is strong in G7 terms and Mr Clinton has achieved a key domestic victory by negotiating congressional approval for his deficit-reduction programme.

Another school of advisers disagrees. Mindful of the traditional US role of pressing for international initiatives and global trade measures, they believe that Mr Clinton must achieve more. A breakthrough in the stalled Uruguay Round of trade talks would be the ultimate prize, perhaps by negotiating 'creative' side agreements and by enlisting the aid of the European Commission's Sir Leon Brittan who is now seen by many in the US as the European key to success. However, even optimists admit that this is virtually impossible.

Second best would be a positive agreement on Russian aid. Mr Clinton and his advisers have invested a lot of foreign policy capital in reviving Western aid to Russia to bolster the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin. The result was an April meeting in Tokyo at which G7 nations agreed to reaffirm their efforts to produce more than dollars 40bn in new resources. But G7 leaders were not enthusiastic about a dollars 4bn privatisation fund for Russia. Europeans, in particular, thought that it premature, given the lack of basic infrastructure and laws protecting property rights. They countered with a a more modest proposal for technical assistance.

Another impasse appears to have occurred as much through poor process as substance. Within the administration, there have been turf battles between Treasury and State over who should take charge. A letter by Lawrence Summers, the Treasury undersecretary for international, to his G7 counterparts drew the instant ire of State Department officials who had not been consulted. Mr Summers outlined a strategy for more IMF money for Russia - which bore fruit last week in the announcement of dollars 1.5bn in new loans.

Strobe Talbott, Mr Clinton's long- time friend who oversees US policy learned of the letter only after it was sent. Relations deteriorated. Meanwhile, Mr Clinton has peppered his G7 counterparts with so much paper that they complain of not being able to sort out his priorities.

The upshot is that if Mr Clinton wants and needs a foreign policy 'win' in Tokyo, he must single out one or more achievable aims, and make sure his policy machine is working. Coming away with nothing at all could do even more damage at home.