Cook flies to US to rebuild 'special' bond

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Britain's new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, paid a flying visit to Washington yesterday, designed to re-cement the "special relationship" after a tetchy five years and convince the US administration that New Labour is a reliable partner in Nato.

Mr Cook's visit, arranged at short notice to precede President Clinton's stopover in London in 10 days' time, included meetings with a top line- up of officials. As protocol required, he met his US opposite number, Madeleine Albright. But he also met the defence secretary, William Cohen, and Mr Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger.

The meetings reflected what one commentator described as the "enthusiastic interest" of the US administration in the new Government's aim of enhancing its standing in Europe.

Of the themes broached during the visit, the durability of the Nato alliance was uppermost, with Europe a close second. The only specific agreement to emerge from the meetings was a declaration on co-ordinating preparations for a conference to determine the fate of gold looted by Nazi Germany and still held in Western banks.

Ireland, which Mr Clinton has put at the top of his agenda for the new British Government, was discussed yesterday, as was Britain's hope that the United States might use whatever influence it has with China to keep a weather eye out for Hong Kong, after the handover.

On Ireland, Mr Cook took pains to correct any idea that Sinn Fein would be included in peace talks, regardless of whether it agreed to a ceasefire. Mr Blair's decision to reopen contacts, Mr Cook said, was designed to ensure that Sinn Fein "understood" the Government's position: Sinn Fein could participate in peace talks only if it agreed to "a credible ceasefire".

On Hong Kong, Mr Cook echoed remarks by Governor Chris Patten, saying that "whatever pressure the US might want to exert on China, for whatever reason", Britain was keen that it should not withdraw most favoured nation (MFN) status from China. This, he said, would only jeopardise the Hong Kong economy.

Concern about the fulfilment of the Dayton accords for peace in the former Yugoslavia was also expressed during the talks. Mr Cook emphasised that progress had not been as great as had been hoped, but he also said there was no change to Britain's "one out, all out" policy for eventual withdrawal from Bosnia.

In a commentary published in the Washington Post on the eve of his visit, Mr Cook affirmed Britain's commitment to Nato, and he repeated that yesterday, describing the US as "one of our strongest and oldest allies".

On Europe, he said that Britain as "a leading player in Europe" would be "a more useful partner" to the US than one that was "drifting into being a marginalised offshore island".