The Naples Summit: Clinton puts home policy on G7 hold

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SEEKING international lustre to revive his flagging domestic fortunes, President Bill Clinton aims to keep this weekend's G7 summit in Naples away from the plight of the dollar and focused on extending global trade liberalisation, arguably the biggest success of his foreign policy during his 18 months in office.

Nothing would please the White House more than a repeat of last year's G7 in Tokyo, where glowing reviews of Mr Clinton's performance, and his mastery of complicated economic issues, helped breathe new life into his presidency. Ideally the Naples meeting would do the same. But the omens are not all favourable.

With Nafta and a new Gatt round under its belt, Washington is expected to launch an initiative with its key partners to lower trade barriers in international telecommunications, and promote global information networks. US companies moreover would be among the biggest beneficiaries, bolstering Mr Clinton's case that international economic co-operation means more jobs for Americans at home.

Just before leaving for Europe the President made that very point. The advanced industrial nations now had a chance 'to create jobs in a world of prosperity,' the best means of underpinning peace and democracy world-wide. Crucial to this oportunity, he insisted, was the sounder foundation of the US economy under his stewardship. A decade of 'drift' and 'out-of- control' budget deficit under his two Republican predecessors had ended with the last summer's five-year, dollars 500bn ( pounds 330bn) deficit-cutting agreement. The US deficit, in proportion to gross domestic product, was one of the smallest in the G7, Mr Clinton claimed.

Also working in his favour is the comparative lull in two international controversies - Bosnia and North Korea - which could have refocused attention in Naples on the Administration's foreign- policy shortcomings.

The ghost at the banquet is the dollar, whose recent decline is both cause and result of those 'uncertain times' of which he spoke. The Administration line is that the dollar problem is basically a yen problem, deriving from political turmoil in Tokyo and the consequent de facto freeze on US-Japanese trade talks. With the dollar strong against most other currencies, and little sign of renewed inflation, no need exists for higher US interest rates, officials argue. Every prior signal has been that Naples will see no concerted plan to shore up the US currency.

The less the dollar is mentioned, the better for Mr Clinton. Why it is so weak baffles many experts, whose theories range from a belief that European economies may rebound more quickly than expected, to Wall Street's decline a US stocks and bonds sell-off. A contributing factor has also been doubts about American policy and leadership.

On Wednesday, Mr Gunter Rexrodt, the German Economics Minister, blamed the dollar's fall on the massive US trade deficit and the 'deep-seated structural problem' of the country's chronic reliance on international capital to make up for its low domestic savings rate. He also criticised Washington's handling of the dispute over Japan's trade surplus.

Yesterday, Mr Rexrodt backed off, saying currency rates would not be a major topic at the summit. Even so, the controversy has shades of the 'benign neglect' disputes which paralysed G7's past, when Europeans would accuse the US of letting the dollar slide for domestic reasons, uncaring of the ramifications abroad. Mr Clinton denies this. But even a hint of a similar row in Naples could throw the markets into chaos, and undermine his efforts to play the international economic statesman.