Kohl and Reagan differ little on policies toward Moscow
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has plenty of differences to wrestle out with President Reagan on his March 3-6 visit to Washington. But policy toward the Kremlin is not one of them.Skip to next paragraph
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A striking transatlantic consensus, in fact, now reigns in an area that was only recently a swamp of contention.
The causes of this newfound harmony are several.
Most conspicuous, of course, is relief at the successful start of NATO Euromissile deployments on schedule last December - and the failure of the Soviet gamble on public opposition to them in Western Europe.
Less obvious, but equally crucial, are two other factors: Dr. Kohl's soothing relationship with his fellow conservative, generalist, and optimist in the White House, and convergence in American and European tactical judgments about the Soviet Union. These phenomena have been mutually reinforcing.
A review of American and European attitudes at the benchmarks of the succession of Yuri Andropov 15 months ago and of Konstantin Chernenko today is instructive. November 1982 probably marked the nadir, February 1984 the recovery , of transatlantic relations. This was largely because past alliance collisions over Soviet policy have now matured into congruence.
Thus, when Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev died on Nov. 10, 1982, the Reagan administration was still imposing ''extra-territoriality'' on its allies. Namely , applying American national law to non-American corporations abroad, and barring these firms from exporting gas-pipeline equipment to the Soviet Union if any American license was involved in their manufacture. The British, West German , French, and Italian governments were all outraged by a national claim that they would not presume to make on American companies in reverse. They encouraged or (in the case of the British) specifically ordered their own companies to defy Washington.
At the same time, the United States reaction to the new Soviet leadership was cool. To be sure, Washington speculated about a possible new beginning. But it emphasized that a new beginning required major changes in Moscow.
Washington's outlook at this point also included a certain wariness about the policy toward the Kremlin being pursued by West Germany - that of the ''outsretched hand,'' in Foreign Minister Hans-Deitrich Genscher's phrase.
If the specifics of this policy were vague, the direction was at least clear: Jaw-jaw rather than war-war. Keep dialogue with Moscow alive even as NATO proceeds to redress the Euromissile imbalance effected by the new Soviet SS-20s. Preserve as much detente as possible in Central Europe. Keep open the possibility of cooperation as well as confrontation. And don't use the drastic but blunt weapon of embargo for mere foreign-policy (as distinct from real security) purposes.
Washington may not have been as suspicious of fledgling conservative Chancellor Kohl as it had been of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his Social Democrats. The West German conservatives had come into office six weeks earlier, after all, swearing loyalty to Washington. They were already putting up the additional NATO ''infrastructure'' funds that the Schmidt government had balked at. And the old shouting matches between Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Defense Minister Hans Apel over 3 percent annual real defense spending increases were now a fading memory.
Nonetheless, Dr. Kohl's government was beginning to formulate policies that were uncomfortably similar to Schmidt's. New Defense Minister Manfred Worner was turning down flat Washington's proposed doubling of planned Pershing IIs in West Germany.
And Worner's supporting arguments about not inflaming the domestic peace movement sounded to some in Washington like kowtowing to nationalist neutralist sentiment.
Weren't the West Germans soft on the Soviets? Weren't they afraid of the new Soviet SS-20s and ready to pay any price rather than stand up to them? Weren't they being tempted to dilute their loyalty to the West by the chimera of reunification of their divided nation? Weren't they being bribed into incipient ''Finlandization'' by the lure of good East-West German relations?
And weren't the ungrateful Europeans anyway getting a free ride on defense while selfishly trying to preserve their own exceptional island of detente in the midst of global superpower confrontation?