Bill and Boris sup in Helsinki: Bill Clinton

Today and tomorrow, the presidents of Russia and the United States meet to confront their countries', and their own, problems. We look at what they hope to get from each other

Be not fooled by appearances. Thanks to that mishap chez Greg Norman on a moonless night in Florida last week, the most powerful man in the world will be rolling into Helsinki today in a wheelchair. Bill Clinton is eager to remind his countrymen that his function in life is not confined to exchanging presidential access for financial donations to his party; and the summit with Boris Yeltsin offers the perfect opportunity.

In the case of re-elected American presidents, foreign travel is traditionally the refuge of the scoundrel. As Watergate moved towards its climax, Richard Nixon sought solace with Anwar Sadat and Leonid Brezhnev. Ronald Reagan's most effective answer to Iran-Contra was three summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. The great Democratic fund-raising rumpus has not yet reached such critical proportions but, even by its own dyspeptic standards, the political mood in Washington is peculiarly rancid.

Mr Clinton is only two months into his second term; but already the prospects for the balanced budget deal that was to have been its capstone may have been fatally poisoned, while the campaign finance dispute has claimed the head of Tony Lake, nominee to head the CIA until he threw in the towel in disgust on Monday, proclaiming that his turbulent confirmation process was proof of how the system "has gone haywire". In short, foul-tempered partisanship reigns and at least one hyperventilating Republican congressman has been muttering about impeachment.

Beyond that, little of substance is happening here. The divided government bequeathed by the 1996 election, the allegations against the White House and the semi-disgrace of Newt Gingrich have left both Democrats and Republicans adrift. The vacuum of policy is being filled by the fund-raising row and ad hominem personal attacks. Great wheels of government like the FBI and the Commerce Department, caught up in the crossfire of allegations, are scarcely turning, while key ambassadorial appointments have been stalled by sensitivity over campaign contributions. Mr Clinton confines his policy initiatives to such momentous topics as safe car seats for children. Even so, the fuss has had scant impact on his popularity; indeed the torn tendon may garner a few ratings points from the sympathy vote.

But that may change when hearings open on Capitol Hill and Fred Thompson, the mediagenic Republican senator from Tennessee who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee, bids to be the Nineties equivalent of the Watergate inquisitor, Senator Sam Ervin. And who knows, there might yet be another tale of the tapes, and another Alexander Butterfield on the witness stand, to destroy a White House. In truth, only the most rabid Clinton-haters quite believe that. Even so, small wonder that a hobbled US president was adamant that come hell or broken crutches, Helsinki 1997 would go ahead.

There is nothing like a summit to display the executive power of the American presidency, and this one could be a beauty, a linear descendant of the great encounters of the Cold War. History indeed may see it as part three of a late 20th-century trilogy of US- Russian relations. In Act One, built around the three summits of Geneva, Reykjavik and Washington between 1985 and 1987, Reagan made the decisive engagement with Gorbachev. George Bush presided over Act Two, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, from the empire's fragments, Bill Clinton has the opportunity to fashion a new security order in Europe. Reagan intuited that the end of the evil empire was at hand, while Bush's greatest achievement was to help ensure the end was peaceful. The challenge facing his successor is to persuade a wounded and suspicious Russia, shorn of a superpower's self-confidence, of the virtues of a new beginning.

In the best Cold War traditions, Mr Clinton's spokesmen play down the occasion. A "routine" session, they say, in which big differences separate the two sides. But the topics summon up confrontations of the past: security, borders, conventional forces in Europe, opposing interpretations of the ABM treaty and the outline of a new round of nuclear arms cuts - and so did this week's performance here of Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister, whose foxy stonewalling recalled Andrei Gromyko in his prime.

Today, of course, the balance of power has tilted lopsidedly towards the US. Like it or not, Moscow knows that Nato expansion will go ahead and Mr Clinton will make clear to the Russians that this year's first batch of entrants will not be the last. Any doubts on that score should be dispelled by the presence at Mr Clinton's side of a Secretary of State who was twice a refugee from tyranny in Eastern Europe. Beyond his recent bluster, Mr Yeltsin's strategy can only be to secure the best deal possible, rather than attempt to stop an enterprise which is irreversible.

To that end, Mr Clinton may prove a surprisingly supple partner. Once he was criticised as being uninterested and unskilled in foreign affairs. But after early mishaps in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, he has performed well. In different ways, America's involvement in Ireland and its brokering of a Bosnian settlement show his growing appreciation of the use of US power. This time the game is trickier; one of imposing his will, without humiliating a Boris Yeltsin who, whatever his frailties, remains Washington's preferred horse in the pursuit of a stable Russia, at peace with not only the world but itself. Helsinki may only be a waystage to this end - but Americans will be reminded that their president is not money-raiser-in- chief, but commander-in-chief.

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