With a deliberate display of bonhomie, President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin met at Franklin D. Roosevelt's boyhood home Monday and agreed to find a way for Russian troops to join a peacekeeping force in Bosnia.
"We have decided that there shall be no disagreements between our two countries," Yeltsin proclaimed at a joint news conference, reflecting both leaders' determination to halt the slide in U.S.-Russian relations.
But to avoid disagreement on a brilliant fall day amid the spectacular scenery of the Hudson River valley, the two presidents had to sidestep two issues that have produced the sharpest U.S.-Russian arguments since the end of the Cold War.
Those issues are how to bring peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina and whether Russia's East European neighbors should join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"There is no relationship between two human beings, much less two countries . . . that does not have occasional differences of opinion," Clinton explained.
"The larger truth," he said, is that the United States and Russia "have established an important partnership" that both sides are determined to preserve.
Clinton said the two presidents spent "the vast majority" of their almost four hours of meetings discussing Bosnia. "We reached complete agreement about how we would work together for peace there," he said.
But "complete agreement" did not include the most pressing immediate problem that divides the two governments. The United States insists that any peacekeeping force in Bosnia be run by NATO, but Russia says its troops will not submit to NATO generals.
"We agreed today that Russian armed forces will participate in these operations--but how they go about doing it is the affair of the military," Yeltsin explained. "It is not a question for us two presidents. We have done our task."
Neither president budged from the two sides' fundamental positions, a senior U.S. official said.
"It is still the Russian position . . . [that] President Yeltsin does not feel that Russian troops should be under NATO command," this official said. And the United States still insists that NATO must lead the operation, he added.
So instead of wrestling over the problem, Clinton and Yeltsin ordered Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev to work out an answer.
A White House official said several ways that NATO could run the operation without placing Russian forces explicitly under alliance officers are under discussion. Perry and Grachev will try to work out a solution Friday, when Grachev is scheduled to arrive in Washington for a visit.
U.S. officials noted that a peacekeeping force will be needed only if Bosnia's warring factions reach an agreement; peace talks are scheduled to begin Oct. 31 at a U.S. Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio. "So we have some time yet," one official said.
As for another bitter disagreement between the United States and Russia, this one over U.S. plans to bring East European countries into NATO, Clinton and Yeltsin avoided a clash by ignoring the issue.
"The expansion of NATO came up only very obliquely," said an official who attended the two presidents' meetings.
Yeltsin, pressed by nationalists in the Russian Parliament, has raised increasingly harsh objections to U.S. proposals to bring Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries into the Western alliance. On the eve of his meeting with Clinton, the Russian president had issued a grim, Cold War-style warning in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly: "The strengthening of one bloc today means a new confrontation beginning tomorrow."
But Monday, Yeltsin shed that glowering persona, embraced Clinton in a rhetorical bear hug and accused the press of exaggerating the differences between the two nuclear powers.
"When I came here, I thought we were going to have very, very tough meetings," he said, speaking hoarsely and passionately. ". . . In spite of the forecasts that said this would be a breakdown, that this would not be a success, this turned out to be today the friendliest meeting."
Yeltsin appeared to have come to the meeting determined to repair the frays in his relationship with Clinton, who has sought warm U.S.-Russian relations since he entered the White House in 1993.
And Clinton chose to hold the summit at the majestic Roosevelt estate, an Italianate mansion on 33 acres of grounds, in hopes of summoning the spirit of the U.S.-Russian alliance in World War II.
By the end of an unseasonably sunny day, the rapport between the two men--calling each other "Bill" and "Boris"--was palpable. They strolled arm in arm, talking intently.
"Not only has our partnership not caved in, but it has become stronger and better," Yeltsin said. ". . . Russia and the United States will be for future generations the guarantor of peace, that there will be no wars."
On three less contentious issues, the presidents did take significant steps forward. They agreed to expand their joint efforts to improve the security of nuclear weapon material in Russia. They agreed to seek by next year a treaty banning all nuclear weapon testing. And the Russians endorsed a U.S. proposal to amend the details of a 1990 treaty limiting conventional weapons in Europe to allow Russia to station more troops in its troubled Caucasus region.
Other potential problems hardly came up, officials said. Clinton raised the issue of Russia's sales of nuclear energy equipment to Iran, which the United States opposes, but did not spend much time on it.
As the two presidents began their meetings in the three-story Roosevelt home, Yeltsin leaned slightly on Clinton's left arm when they ascended four stone steps. Otherwise the Russian leader appeared healthy.
They sat in a pair of rustic bentwood chairs on a vast lawn sweeping down to the Hudson--chairs Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sat in when Britain's wartime leader came to visit--and admired a breathtaking view of riotous autumn leaves and the Catskill Mountains.
"They sat here in the sun," Clinton said. "I can see why they never wanted to go inside."
"In such a place, there won't be any problems that we won't be able to resolve," Yeltsin said--then laughed at his own hyperbole.
To mark the occasion, Clinton presented Yeltsin with a leather-bound edition of Roosevelt's radio "fireside chats" in Russian. Yeltsin reciprocated with an unusually sly gift: a pair of jerseys from the Moscow Penguins hockey team, one embroidered "Clinton" with the number "96," the other embroidered "Yeltsin" with the number "96."
Clinton has said he plans to run for reelection next year, but Yeltsin has made no such announcement--yet.