Leading Article: No stopping the world

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The Independent Online
IT IS too easy to dismiss Bill Clinton's criticisms of Britain, France, Europe and the United Nations as the flailing of a man in search of a scapegoat for his own failures. What he said is more important than why he said it, and not all of it was wrong. Nor did he shift all the blame on to others. In parts of his interview with the Washington Post he confessed frankly to his own mistakes.

Where his irritation surfaced was over the role of the United Nations in Somalia and over European resistance to his plan to bomb the Serbs and arm the Muslims in Bosnia. For the Somalian fiasco he must share with Boutros Boutros- Ghali the blame for the senseless vendetta against General Aideed, which was pursued largely by US forces. As for Bosnia, it is difficult to decide who comes out worse, the Europeans or the Americans. The Bush administration bungled the early stages by backing Serbia. The Europeans then blundered in with the absurd pretension that they could settle the problem.

Later they sought American help, only to find that Mr Clinton was not prepared for US ground forces to share the risks that his policy presented. Nor had he thought out the implications for the aid convoys. In the circumstances, it was unfair of him to say that the British and French felt it 'far more important to avoid lifting the arms embargo than to save the country'. The problem was more complex than that.

What seems to have shaken London more is the remark of his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, also in the Washington Post, that 'Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world'. This is true, but simplistic. Europe's relative power is declining, as is that of the US. Its strategic importance has also diminished since it ceased to be the front line of the Cold War. Asia is probably the rising power of the future. But this surely makes it all the more important to maintain the community of broader interests that still links Europe and the US.

In this relationship Britain still plays a special role largely because Europe is not united. The relationship always looks larger from the British side than the American, but it will survive in some form or other until it is replaced by Europe. If it is now based less on sentiment and personal chemistry than on common interests, so much the better.

The frustration behind Mr Clinton's speech is not primarily with Britain or Europe but with an increasingly recalcitrant world that has intruded on the beginnings of domestic success for his administration. It is a world in which the US is less confident about acting alone but unable to dominate those it must work with and reluctant to be dominated by them. No satisfactory response has been found by his lacklustre foreign policy team, which has allowed disasters to catch him unprepared.

If the President wants to devote his time to domestic affairs, he needs a strong foreign affairs team to which he can delegate with confidence. The world will not wait quietly while the US sorts out its internal problems.

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