WASHINGTON — Most commentary on this month's 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall emphasized the stability made possible by the gruesome edifice. This static view neglects the dynamic ties between East and West Germany--and how preservation of those ties plays an increasingly important role in Bonn's foreign policy. Dramatic events of last spring--including Libya, Chernobyl and U.S. renunciation of Salt II--demonstrate how this concern, combined with the widespread deterioration of the U.S. image in the federal republic, threaten to damage future relations with our most powerful European ally.
In many ways West Germany remains our most reliable ally on the Continent. West Germany's military units are the core of the North American Treaty Organization's ground forces. The government successfully overcame strong domestic opposition to NATO nuclear modernization. And generally worded public-opinion surveys continue to show a strong majority of West Germans in favor of continued membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Disputes between Bonn and Washington have tended to be in a European-American framework rather than bilateral.
Response to the American raid on Libya also followed the general European pattern: condemnation by the majority of the populace, including street demonstrations, and disapproval from all political parties. Chancellor Helmut Kohl did, however, express "understanding" for the U.S. action. Strong disagreement still exists between U.S. and West German diplomats as to the degree to which the Germans, particularly Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, should have been surprised by the attack.
More remarkable and idiosyncratic has been the debate on nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl. The initial outrage over Soviet irresponsibility quickly gave way to a reaction that many German commentators have called hysterical. Government ineptitude in failing quickly to establish national radioactivity safety norms allowed party politics to interfere with objectivity. As part of a process of "equidistancing" from the superpowers that has accelerated over the past few years, Chernobyl is routinely equated with Three Mile Island (the Greens' campaign slogan in June state elections was "Chernobyl is everywhere").
Politicians who know better were seemingly afraid to point out the fundamental differences. A nationally televised debate on nuclear power in May featured the Social Democratic prime minister of the Saarland and a Greens leader bullying the federal minister of science and technology. In a style crude even by rough-and-tumble German standards, the Greens' man and the Social Democrat glossed over or denied Soviet errors and said America was the real nuclear threat to Germany via the Strategic Defense Initiative. Similarly, U.S. involvement in Central America is offered as a parallel to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The theory of "equidistance," while not held by a majority of the West Germany electorate or decision-makers, nonetheless has become increasingly fashionable, especially on the left. A basic tenet of this thinking is that the Soviets and Americans both pursue amoral worldwide power games and that the United States is at least as dangerous to the peace as the Soviet Union. The respected weekly newspaper Die Zeit is a case in point. Countess Marion Doenhoff, the paper's publisher, recently wrote, "We are not threatened by communism or by the Warsaw Pact." An article in the same edition satirized the U.S. world view: "The world is white or black. America is white and good. Russia is red, therefore black and evil. The rest of the world is gray, therefore black, if not already red."
Of course images do not arise in a vacuum, and American actions often dismay our closest friends in Germany and elsewhere. The clumsy handling of the SALT II issue irritated usually sympathetic leaders in the Bonn government's center-right coalition, and they were quick to respond publicly. Moreover, the universal tendency of politicians to play to perceived public opinion has special significance in the German context. Foreign Minister Genscher, until recently the leader of the junior coalition partner Free Democrats, seems to take positions critical of the United States just before elections as his party fights to stay above the 5% level necessary to remain in state parliaments or the federal Bundestag. Constant rhetoric from the Greens and other leftists has had a noticeable impact on West Germans' opinion of America and of their country's relations with it. Public debate has become emotional, larded with terms such as "lackey" and "vassal state." Chancellor Kohl has felt the need to warn against letting legitimate criticism of United States policies slide into crude anti-Americanism.