LEADING ARTICLE : Good friends, better friends

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The Independent Online
If President Clinton's aides are to be believed, then the Clinton- Blair Thursday night dinner at a fashionable Thames-side restaurant was more relaxed than any similar occasion their boss has attended in other European capitals.

None the less it is important not to get carried away. The partnership, however cordial, does not yet promise to match the extraordinary symbiosis of the Thatcher and Reagan years. Then the British premier said of her American counterpart: "I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did; not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature, all the high ideals and values which lie - or ought to lie - beneath any politician's ambition to lead his country." But the transatlantic relationship is back in town. Blair and Clinton share common interests and perspectives from rock music to welfare reform. Already two Cabinet ministers have visited Washington and a third is jetting off soon. Mr Blair's staff are consulting diaries for a return visit to the States.

Britain has been the main beneficiary of the "special relationship", particularly if you include America's decisive role in two world wars. In more recent times, the Falklands War demonstrated that a well-disposed President could be useful to a prime minister in his/her hour of need. The Gulf War gave Britain the opportunity to reciprocate, providing a military lead matched by no other country in Europe.

Even when it goes wrong, as it undoubtedly did between Mr Clinton and John Major (whose party had foolishly helped the Republicans in the 1992 US elections), the charge sheet is not lengthy. The most public row was over the Clinton administration's decision to grant Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, a visa to the US. But it remained business as usual between the two countries at many levels. British and American diplomatic interests usually coincide - for example, at the UN Security Council, Nato and G8. Goodwill, then, is the norm. This is the one relationship which is relatively hard to foul up. Clearly it works best when the two leaders like each other, but the relationship is there, institutionalised and uncontroversial on both sides of the Atlantic. The danger is that the perceived specialness blinds Britain to its role in the modern world. The UK may have an above average military capability and a nuclear arsenal, but it is a medium- sized industrial nation not a super-power. However convenient it may be for Mr Clinton to be seen with the most electorally successful centre- left leader of recent years, the meeting was not one of equals.

And America is only one of our natural allies. The Commonwealth provides a network of large and small nations with the English language in common. Then there is Europe, arguably the bedrock of the nation's economy and the source of 58 per cent of the country's trade. As Mr Blair argued on Thursday, Britain does not need to choose between a relationship between the US and Europe. But it does need to get its perspective right. Britain has an opportunity to act as a gateway between the US, the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world on the one hand - and Europe, the continent on which we find ourselves, on the other. But that means reaching a settlement with our European partners. Here Labour's start has been good, with a warm welcome from EU partners at the Noordwijk summit. But alliance building in Europe is a complex matter, as Robin Cook discovered when he suggested that Britain will join France and Germany as the leaders of the new Europe. The message won a particularly chilly reception in Rome. Creating a powerful role in Europe will require patience and perspective. It means constructive negotiations at the forthcoming inter-governmental conference in Amsterdam. It means convincing the world that we have a role in shaping Europe's destiny.

But the potential prize for Mr Blair is great. Ray Seitz, the former US ambassador to London said on his retirement from the post: "There is a simple observation that, if Britain's voice is less influential in Paris or Bonn, it is likely to be less influential in Washington." If Britain has a bigger shout in Europe, Mr Blair's voice will be heard all the louder in the White House.

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