Boris and Bill, two brothers at the cliff edge

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SO MUCH FOR the silly season. August 1998 may well turn out to have been the beginning of the end for the two leaders of the former superpowers. President Clinton and President Yeltsin are both in political mortal danger. Each has used his option of last resort. They share the strange kinship of having risen to a great height together, only to find themselves, for entirely different reasons, on a cliff edge in a gale.

Until the collapse of Communism, the world's real news was made in Moscow and Washington. They were the Yin and Yang of all our lives. Now, once again, the date-lines dominate, albeit in an entirely different relation to one another. America is undisputed master of the universe. Russia has a faltering currency, a sick leader and a gaggle of revisionist vultures pecking at its weak democracy.

Yet the careers of the two men have a strange symmetry, even if the comparison reflects the chasm of fortune between the two old enemies. Le Monde captured this in a cartoon showing both dressed only in their underpants. "Did a woman do this to you, too?" asks the sheepish Clinton. "No," replies a glum Yeltsin. "The rouble did."

Clinton, having issued a prolonged whimper to the nation, followed it up with the bang of air strikes against America's enemies - inadequate evasions supplanted by the unambiguous use of force. The penitent was duly transformed into commander-in-chief. The real humiliation of Boris Yeltsin is that he has no such alternative theatre in which to appear as a national leader. Forced by the ineluctable power of global markets and the serial irresponsibility of Russia's banks into to a severe rouble devaluation, he presides over a country that has publicly hung out the sign "basket case".

Americans can afford to be so concerned about their president's sexual excesses and character defects because they have been living in a time of unparalleled confidence and ease. The focus of the entire nation on its leader's moral lapses tells us that America is comfortable and prosperous enough to take time out. With an economy growing, as Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, spookily put it, "beyond history", America's only worry is that this Eden is too good to last. The citizens of the other former superpower, meanwhile, have seen their paltry savings, already ravaged by years of inflation, diminish by a quarter overnight.

In 1993, when Clinton was freshly elected and Yeltsin at the height of his power, I went to Vancouver for the first summit between the new leaders. Peace had broken out all over. The Americans came bearing hefty donations to the cause of Russian reform, disarmament talks were a smooth formality. The real purpose of the meeting was to celebrate a new beginning and bless the dawn of better days.

Both leaders were buoyed by the easy confidence that came of not being their predecessors. America had tired of stale George Bush. Yeltsin, defiantly mounting a tank in the streets of Moscow during the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, had annointed himself the new tsar.

Today, Yeltsin's only claim to success - and it is not inconsiderable - is that, in clinging to power, he has managed to keep out extremists. His reputation as a statesman was destroyed by the unnecessary, unsuccessful war in Chechnya. He failed - or perhaps the task was too great for anyone - to build a healthy polity on the mouldering remains of the Bolshevik revolution.

Russia is steadily repelling the West, in part because Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund proved unequal to the task of stabilising it, and in part because its expectations were too high, the product of decades of isolation from the harsher realities of capitalism. When he visits Moscow this autumn, Clinton will not repeat his address of 1994: "Consider the price of standing still or going back ... a rigid state economy does not work in the modern world." "Neither," the massed Russian chorus would cry, "does whatever brand of corrupt, bastardised capitalism we have now."

We should not be surprised by the robustness of Yeltsin's attack on the American attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan. He has no choice but to abominate Washington. Making common cause with nationalist and Communist hardliners against the traditional foe of Uncle Sam's imperialism is the instinctive defence mechanism of a man who, drunk or sober, knows when his back is against the wall.

In the first half of the 1990s I was struck by the personal similarities between the two men. Both were gregarious, charismatic populists, greedy for life and experience, with a streak of irresponsibility running through their political shrewdness. It turned out that the Russian president had a problem with drink, while the American one has a problem with sex: neither can take their chosen pleasure in seemly moderation.

The Cold War seemed to be buried then - but its consequences still have the power to disrupt the world's peace. Now it is America that has undertaken the risk of military engagement with Afghanistan's fundamentalists, inheriting the old enemy of the Soviet Union. The US has different policy aims, a more solid justification for its actions and the luxury of using its unquestioned air superiority to do the job. And yet its interventions here and in Sudan are far from certain to succeed. The retaliation for the bombings of US embassies can be excused only if it stems international terror. If it fails to do so, or indeed provokes further aggression from the enemies of the US, present doubts about its single-handed settling of accounts will flourish.

The failure of Washington to consult its allies on this matter, let alone Pakistan, which was the unwilling recipient of a stray missile, was regrettable. If the consequence of a mono-polar world is that America may undertake unilateral action anywhere in order to redress iniquities practised against it, then the future of international institutions is dim. We can at present comfort ourselves that Europe and America have the same security interests and can agree on what constitutes an enemy. This is not guaranteed always to be the case. The assumption of common interests that came so easily to the West during the Cold War will be tested by the more fissiparous world of the next century.

Who will survive longer in these uncertain times, Yeltsin or Clinton? If I had to bet my last devalued rouble, I would opt for Boris. It is far easier to launch guided missiles than to contain the unguided ones flying around at home. Monica Lewinsky has not spoken her last. Neither have America's Democrats.

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