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Albright begins first trip in new job // SUBSTANCE, NOT JUST SYMBOLISM

In advertising terms, Madeleine Albright has had her national rollout as the new secretary of state.

She has laid down her themes of bipartisanship, global responsibility and public diplomacy. And through appointments and symbolism, she has tried to yank the center of foreign policymaking back into the State Department.

Saturday she took her show on the road, to nine countries in Europe and Asia, mixing traditional allies with foreign policy challenges. (Europeans regard it as important that her first stop is in Europe rather than in Asia, while Asians regard it as important that she will also visit their countries.) Though her first trip abroad as secretary of state will have ample symbolism, these 10 days mark a first serious effort to grapple with the issues.

That will be unavoidable, and grueling. Relations with Russia and China are defining the first year of President Clinton's second term, and Albright is going to both countries at sensitive junctures.

In Moscow, she will be the first U.S. official to see the ailing President Boris Yeltsin since Vice President Al Gore saw him last July.

Albright will also go to Beijing, one of Washington's most vexing relations, at the end of a trip that is bound to tire even someone known for her stamina.

This trip will break down roughly into halves, and Russia and China will define them. Although there are some important bilateral issues with various European countries, the prevailing topic of her visits to Rome, Paris, Brussels, London and Bonn will be European security: the coming expansion of NATO and the effort to create a new, parallel understanding with Russia, ideally before NATO leaders meet to name prospective new members in July.

The recent meetings of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of Russia and Clinton and Gore at least gave the Russians a better understanding of what an expanded NATO might mean, officials say.

It was a telling indication of Russia's current confusion, the officials said, that Chernomyrdin had not really grasped until coming to Washington earlier this month that the NATO meeting in July will only invite new members who would not actually join until at least April 1999.

In her dealings with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Yeltsin, Albright will speak for the alliance, after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers with her in Brussels. She is expected to be able to present a united NATO position on a new round of negotiations to modify the outdated treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

A modified treaty is an important part of a NATO package intended to help assure Russia that an expanded NATO, but with smaller forces, will have less armor arrayed against it; that new members will not have NATO forces, conventional or nuclear, stationed on their soil except in some unforeseeable emergency; and that Russia will have full rights of consultation, though not of veto, on questions of European security and any joint efforts, as in Bosnia.

Perhaps most important, NATO is preparing what would effectively be a promise to Russia that it will not use force outside the NATO area without international authorization, such as U.N. approval _ where Moscow has a veto.

Persuading the Russians to slide down this funnel that NATO has fashioned will not happen overnight, but Albright will start making the case in earnest, preparing for a summit meeting between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin on March 20 in Helsinki, Finland.

Her meeting with Yeltsin is particularly important because U.S. officials think that his decision remains the crucial one on security issues.

While Russia is trying to strike its best bargain through Primakov's adept diplomacy and even to divide the alliance, it is Yeltsin who will make the final decision as to whether the bargain available is good enough for Moscow to seek a new relationship with a NATO that will expand in any case. The American challenge, officials understand, is to give Yeltsin a good enough package of promises, consultation and high-level acknowledgments of Russia's importance that the Russian president can sell the result at home as a victory, not a defeat.

But Albright has also started making the case for NATO expansion at home and among allies, contributing a long article to this week's Economist magazine and giving interviews to European newspapers, such as Le Monde, that will appear in the capitals she will visit.

While she is away, this coming week, the State Department is expected to release estimates that put the cost of NATO expansion to U.S. taxpayers of about $200-million a year, officials say. While that number will be questioned and criticized by critics of expansion, it represents less than 0.1 percent of the Pentagon's $265-billion budget.

In France, she will smooth relations that got patchy at the end of Warren Christopher's term and discuss possible solutions to the French wish for a more visible European command within NATO. In Germany, she will reassure the government of Helmut Kohl that bilateral relations are in order, and that State Department criticism of German restrictions on the Church of Scientology will not be allowed to define relations with Europe's most important country.

There will be hand-holding and reassurance in Seoul and Tokyo, as well. South Korea, under economic strain, is always nervous about the American commitment to its security, no matter how often restated. How to handle North Korea preoccupies many officials, and worries persist that a collapsing North Korea might choose to "roll the dice" and invade the south.

Debate continues about how much Albright will emphasize economic and trade disputes with Tokyo, which has had a breathing space of more than a year without a major confrontation with Washington. But there will be emphasis on security ties, particularly given instability on the Korean Peninsula and a more assertive China.

But Beijing will be the climax of the Asian part of the trip, with Albright expected to meet President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng as well as Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. In part, she will prepare for Gore's visit at the end of March, with Jiang expected to travel to Washington in November. But Washington must also decide whether to co-sponsor a resolution criticizing China's human rights record at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in March.

U.S. officials are looking for some gestures from the Chinese _ a willingness to ratify international human rights conventions, the release of prominent prisoners if even on medical grounds, and the resumption of talks about Red Cross visits to Chinese prisons _ that will let Washington claim some success on human rights as it discusses all the other key issues of their relationship.

Those issues _ from possible Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization and arms sales to the manner in which Beijing takes over Hong Kong at the end of June _ are complicated enough.