Learning the new Atlantic accent: Britain could be special to the US again if we became better Europeans, says Jonathan Eyal

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UNDER the firm guidance of Christopher Meyer, the Prime Minister's new press secretary, John Major's visit to the United States was concluded without a hitch. Some nice photo opportunities, a sentimental visit to Pittsburgh, coupled with the singular honour of staying at the White House.

And, as if to strengthen the 'special relationship' further, Moscow revealed the discovery of an alleged British spy just as Major was being feted in Washington. Coming immediately after the US-Russian spy scandal, the feeling in Washington was that the good old days are back again: in sickness and in health, the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world stand together.

Almost every government asserts a 'special relationship' with the US. True, a joint language, history and political tradition are all important: Chancellor Kohl may display his huge love for food by having a much-publicised dinner with President Clinton at a Washington restaurant, but he still needs a translator between courses. Yet the biggest disservice that can be performed to the British-American relationship is to reduce it to such banalities. If the transatlantic alliance is shaky, this is because Britannia cannot even find the waves it once ruled.

The two disputes that have elicited the strongest reaction - the visit of Gerry Adams to the US and differences over policy in Bosnia - are, in practice, quite ephemeral. True, Gerry Adams scored a publicity coup, but much of this was due to the novelty of his visit: and fame in America is fleeting.

Differences over Bosnia were much more serious, yet there was little that Britain could have done to avoid the dispute. We were no more to blame than any other European state for the debacle. Britain's responsibility for the disaster loomed larger in America's eyes really only because of the similarities in language and institutions.

Other European leaders make their foreign policy statements at elaborate press conferences which, because they need translation, remain virtually unusable by US television networks. Foreign policy debates in the House of Commons, however, are broadcast at length on America's C-Span network, and sound-bites from Question Time need no translation.

It is instructive, for instance, that in most of the debates about Yugoslavia on American media British commentators predominated. In short, Lord Owen and Britain became the representatives of the continent's failure. This is the flip side of the 'special relationship'. Familiarity can breed contempt and affection in equal measures.

The real importance of the Yugoslav dispute is not so much in apportioning blame but in revealing a disturbing inability on both sides of the Atlantic to deal with post-Cold War conflicts. Basically, neither the West Europeans nor the Americans were ever persuaded that stopping the war in Yugoslavia was worth the life of even one of their soldiers: they all put forward plans for solving the conflict, preferably with someone else's troops. And Washington was too slow to understand that it could not lead in Yugoslavia without being prepared to share the risks on the ground. Indeed, in the near future, it will be the issue of transatlantic burden-sharing, not the personal rapport between Clinton and Major, that will be the real test of the British-American relationship.

The present administration, unlike its predecessors, positively encourages the development of a distinct European identity as the only way to reduce America's outlays on European defence and spur the stabilisation of East European states. Britain's role as a special mediator between America and the rest of the European continent has therefore practically vanished, for London is better at opposing European integration schemes than helping to shape them.

No one heaped more abuse on France for its opposition to the Gatt accord last December than John Major. His action was well received in Washington, but the Americans knew that if they really wanted to conclude a free trade agreement, Germany's more subtle influence in Paris was likely to produce the desired outcome. And if Nato is to include a growing European military component, the Americans know they must draw closer to the French.

None of these developments inherently contradicts British priorities but, as long as London does not know what it wants from Europe, it will be increasingly bypassed by Washington. The debate about Britain's equidistance from the European continent is one that preoccupies the Tory party, not American decision-makers. And the US expectation that the Europeans should shoulder more of the burden for their security is likely to increase if relations between the US and Russia nosedive, as now seems likely. The East-West crises that have saved the US-UK relationship from disputes before will never return. Loath thoughMr Major may be to admit it, his importance for the Americans will be measured by the scale of Britain's importance in Brussels.

Despite this, on a purely bilateral level, Clinton's desire to accommodate Major is significant. And Britain has a chance to build on this, provided it bears in mind some important considerations. Throughout the long rule of Republican presidents, new legislation in the Democratic-controlled Congress was effectively blocked. Washington's famed 'gridlock' is now being broken and, amid the legislation pouring out, there will be measures that affect British interests. More important, the Byzantine coalitions that were required to pass any legislation can spring surprises: a Gerry Adams visit in return for support on health care reform; a sale of aircraft to Argentina (which London opposes) in exchange for more votes.

Acting as just another lobby on Capitol Hill does not come naturally to the British embassy in Washington, but it remains a necessary task. And it requires resources: the British ambassador entertained no fewer than 11,000 people last year. Yet, the staff of the embassy has been reduced by one-fifth. Britain spends only pounds 30m on its entire US operations (including consulates), and no longer even has a full-time press counsellor in Washington. 'Punching above its weight' is Douglas Hurd's favourite motto for the Foreign Office. Covering up a thin frame is a more appropriate description. At least in this respect, Major's visit was successful.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)