NEW YORK — The 1987 West Germany election will be an important moment in American-European relations. If the ruling Christian Democratic Union party were to lose to the opposition Social Democratic Party and Johannes Rau were to become chancellor, Germany might change its role in the Atlantic Alliance, abandon the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and turn against President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Other European countries might then take the German lead and further disengage. Right now, the two parties are running almost even in the polls.
Most opposition leaders don't meet Ronald Reagan when they visit Washington but Rau was the exception last week because Germany is the linchpin of the Atlantic Alliance. The U.S. interest is to be on good terms with both German parties--Kohl's pro-American Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. In recent years, relations have deteriorated with Rau's party as it drifted to the left and espoused anti-American positions. Tensions increased in the early '80s when former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat, first requested U.S. missiles but his party then turned against their deployment. When Chancellor Kohl later fought for and achieved deployment, the Social Democrats campaigned against the American missiles.
Rau is perceived as a moderate, a man on the right of his party. And the United States wishes to encourage the Rau tendency in the party. "Rau harks back to the Social Democrats we knew and loved," as one U.S. official put it. "They're coming back to us, to the middle. The left never wanted Rau."
After his meeting with the President, Rau talked about his view of the Atlantic Alliance and other key German-American issues: "I told President Reagan we are members of the alliance, that we need to be and want to be. "
Although he admits being against deployment of U.S. missiles, Rau evaded the question of whether he would let them stay in Germany if elected chancellor; instead he spoke of his hope that the need for missiles can be eliminated or reduced: "The German situation makes it necessary that we come to results in Geneva because in my country there are many weapons, and we believe disarmament is a goal which is very important for our society in Europe."
He said he asked President Reagan for a settlement with the Soviets regarding European strategic missiles and Rau claimed the President seemed hopeful about a reduction of intermediate range missiles.
"We didn't discuss SDI," said Rau, referring to the Strategic Defense Initiative, "because he knew my position and the position of my party." Rau and colleagues are opposed to SDI: "We shouldn't try to use space for new weapons systems."
How does he feel about the American perception of him as a moderate, a man in the same position once held by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt--more popular than his own party as the man furthest to the right in his party? Rau chooses to paper over any differences between himself and his supporters: "We hope the Social Democrats are convinced that we cannot leave the alliance, and that German-American relations are one of the essential pillars of that alliance. (Yet) there are differences of opinion as far as strategies are concerned."
Dietrich Stobbe, a member of Parliament who was traveling with Rau, replied that Rau is "a unifier of the party . . . . To say he's a moderate, you place him in the middle of nowhere and that's not his position." Stobbe insisted that very few Social Democrats ever called for leaving the alliance.
Yet one U.S. expert on Germany said the Social Democrats have changed: "There are no more Atlanticists in it. It used to be OK for them to say the key to German survival was the relationship with America, but no one will say that anymore. The party is full of tensions because it is different than the man in charge."
Willy Brandt, the Social Democrats' former chancellor, has suggested that erection of the Berlin Wall made it clear that America will not be there to defend Germany in a time of crisis, that the federal republic must seek good relations with the East as its only way to survive. Rau now says that if he were chancellor, relations with the East would be better than they are now. He advocates a policy promoting constant U.S.-Soviet dialogue to bring about arms-control agreements: "If detente represented the first phase of a relaxation of tensions, I'm now talking of a second phase of relaxation of tensions. I know it is possible . . . between the United States and the Soviet Union. Therefore we are making suggestions for subjects to be discussed by those two nations (such as) the conclusion of an interim agreement on Euro-strategic weapons."
Having met with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Rau remains convinced that it is possible to achieve a breakthrough arms-control treaty between the two superpowers; he doesn't believe the Soviets violate every treaty they sign, as many U.S. hard-liners claim.