The end of the affair?: Major's government pays for gaffes over Clinton

THE Prince of Wales arrives in the United States tomorrow to attend the final days of the acclaimed UK-LA arts festival in Los Angeles. Flying in at about the same time will be the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who will spend two days discussing military matters with his US counterpart, William Perry, and sightseeing. That old Anglo-American axis is fairly vibrating with activity.

Buzz there is, but not all of it happy. It is no secret that since Bill Clinton became President the lines between Washington and London have been filled with static - over Bosnia, over Northern Ireland and, from the start, over the Tory Party's support for the re-election of George Bush in 1992.

Attempts to tune out the interference seem always to fall victim to some new glitch. Loud in the background hums the awkward question: are we witnessing the end of the 'special relationship'?

The latest hiccup was the remark in a radio interview - prominently reported last week in the New York Times - by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, that he considered the new Labour leader, Tony Blair, to be 'Clintonesque'. He explained: 'You know - 'here we are, aren't we fun, we're new beautiful people, we're not saying very much, let's just have a change'.'

In Washington, it caused another weary shrug. The State Department prepared a brief press statement insisting that the relationship remained 'on solid ground'. In the National Security Council, officials noted that Mr Clarke had been sounding off about Washington's handling of Gerry Adams. No one in the administration or, for that matter, in the British embassy in Washington, thought it helpful that the second most senior minister in Britain should be taking the President's name in vain.

By any standards, these have been trying months for Sir Robin Renwick, the British ambassador, and his staff. Even before the difficulties over specific policy issues, the poison injected by the Conservatives' less-than-subtle interference in the 1992 campaign, which included allowing the Home Office to search files for draft-dodging information on candidate Clinton, seems still not to have fully dispersed. 'I think that Mr Major's apparent affection for Mr Bush has done him no good at all,' said former acting Secretary of State, Larry Eagleburger. 'He has been paying for that ever since.'

The single most serious source of strain has been over Bosnia. Last spring, when the allies came foward with a peace proposal, the tensions seemed to recede. Now, however, the situation is deteriorating again. The announcement on Friday by America's ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, that she was tabling a resolution to exempt the Bosnian Muslims from the arms embargo threatens to bring those disagreements to a head. Britain and France continue to oppose the lifting of the embargo. 'Bosnia still has the potential to rock our relations in quite a serious way,' one British official said. 'If they pursue this hard then there will be a bust-up.'

Meanwhile, there has been intense irritation at recent criticism in Washington of General Sir Michael Rose, UN Commander in Bosnia, as having been soft on the Serbs.

That has not been half as huffy as the British reaction to American 'interference' in the Northern Ireland peace process, particularly since the granting of the first US visa to Gerry Adams in February. Nine months later, neither side in the tiff has relented. 'It's our bloody country,' one British diplomat snorted last week. While the White House asserts that it was right to allow Mr Adams in last winter and that the visit was an early catalyst to the peace process, the British apparently do not see things that way. 'That is not our view,' an embassy spokesman noted tartly last week.

Earlier this month, Mr Adams was back again, ridiculing the Government to cheering Irish-American crowds. Trooping to America also are all the other parties in the process: the Unionists, the Loyalists; even the Irish government cannot keep away. The idea of an American peace envoy may be dead, but no wonder. A visitor from Mars might have the impression of the US interjecting itself into British affairs, as though it were rushing to assist a small country with no grasp of peace or modern democracy. Like Haiti.

Of course, Britain has not sunk that low in American esteem, but its standing, with this administration anyway, is surely diminished. 'There is an assessment in Washington now that Britain's is a terminally weak government,' one senior European diplomat here noted.

Another factor, he said, is London's continuing ambivalence towards the European Union: 'There has been a gradual erosion of Britain's position vis-a-vis the other European countries in terms of authority and clout. What matters for the Americans is not what London thinks, but what the Germans and the French think.' In the meantime, London has watched with anxiety as the administration has conspicuously sought to deepen its ties with Bonn while at the same time expressing its firm support for further European integration.

That the Anglo-American relationship should be changing is no surprise. The end of the Cold War and the removal of the Nazi and Soviet threats from Europe have ended the common cause that bound Britain to the United States for most of this century.

But at other levels the relationship of America to Britain will always be unique, by virtue of shared history, tradition and language. 'It is not what it was in 1944, for heaven's sakes, but because of the shared culture and shared affinities it will always be there,' said Mr Eagleburger. 'I don't know how many times we have said 'Oh my God, the special relationship is dead, is dying or is breathing hard' - but in the end it always turns out fine.'

Mr Rifkind, who arrives tomorrow, presides over one area where the bonds perhaps do remain special: defence. This year, Britain took delivery of the first Trident D-5 nuclear missiles. It has an option to lease a number of Tomahawk cruise missiles - the type that can turn left at the traffic lights. These are privileges not on offer to other American allies.

Just one thing, Mr Rifkind. While you and your wife wander the streets of colonial Williamsburg with the Perrys on Tuesday - no Clinton jokes. Please.

(Photograph omitted)

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