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The BBC's Philippa Thomas
"Much to celebrate in the state of US relations with Europe"
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Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
Clinton's 'last European tour'
US K-For soldiers
The US played a leading role in the Kosovo conflict
By Washington correspondent Philippa Thomas

President Clinton believes there is much to celebrate in the state of US relations with Europe.

As he says, the continent today would not be recognised by those who lived at the beginning of the Cold War.

This week marks the first trip by an American president to Berlin since the city became the capital of the new united Germany. It is also the first time an American president has addressed a democratically-elected parliament in Russia.

President Bill Clinton
The US president has a wide-ranging agenda for Lisbon talks
Bill Clinton is famously obsessed with his legacy. In Europe, the 42nd president hopes to be remembered for his efforts to maintain US engagement at a time when America's vital interests are no longer threatened.

In recent years, Washington has strongly encouraged the expansion of Nato to former communist states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. And of course, the United States played a leading role during Nato's military intervention in Kosovo last year - a role for which Mr Clinton will be honoured with the prestigious Charlemagne prize in Germany this Friday.

But rhetoric aside, the expectations for this trip are modest. Talks between the US and European Union leaders in Lisbon will focus on maintaining stability in south-east Europe, on the international fight against terrorism in cyberspace, and on new efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and Aids.

The American public is more focused on Wall Street than world affairs... and the president knows it

President Clinton will also face serious concerns about US military plans for a national missile defence shield - which critics in Europe, Russia and China have warned could help to trigger a new arms race.

A decision is due this year on whether to launch the first phase of the project: the stationing of 20 interceptor missiles in the state of Alaska.

There is no doubt that with such a deadline looming, arms control issues will also be at the heart of talks with the new Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow.

So, given these diplomatic tensions, the White House is playing down expectations - the approach is that this is an opportunity for a useful exchange of views between world leaders, rather than any substantive breakthrough.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Putin will discuss arms control when Clinton reaches Moscow
And what about the reaction at home to what could be Mr Clinton's last official trip to Europe? Frankly, the American public is more focused on Wall Street than world affairs - more concerned with the state of the domestic economy than strategic matters abroad. And the president knows it.

Indeed, his own international agenda has been heavily focused on trade: from his first big legislative achievement, the North American Free Trade Alliance or Nafta, to last week's Congressional vote to open normal trading relations with China.

The original slogan quoted by Clinton campaign workers was infamous - "it's the economy, stupid". But as far as public opinion goes, the campaign got it right.

Yes, defence and diplomacy issues matter greatly, and come to the fore in time of crisis, whether in the Balkans or in Iraq. But in day-to-day America, now that the Cold War is history, the public's attention is waning fast.

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