Germans Are at Ease With Clinton or Bush

Analysts note convergence in foreign policy, commitment to Europe

ALTHOUGH coverage of the United States presidential debates has been all over the front pages of German newspapers, the country for the most part has remained focused on domestic concerns. But interviews with officials and analysts here suggest a basic level of comfort with both President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

The general tendency, says Jochen Thies of the German Society for Foreign Policy, "would be to want to reelect George Bush. He's seen here as the one who was at the head of the US when it said `yes' to Germany reunification." In contrast, leaders in Bonn remember that the French and the British expressed their reservations about German unity in early 1990.

The Bush team is seen as more experienced, with the president having "a particular understanding for the Europeans, for the Germans," Dr. Thies adds.

A Bonn official says, however, "We have been analyzing the foreign policy statements of the two candidates, and we find a very large convergence between them. A common theme is [a realization] that if the United States is to play its role in the world, it must mend its economy.

"We don't see that things will be dramatically different, no matter who gets elected," the official adds.

"In Bonn, they know President Bush and his advisers. But they also know a number of the people who have been working as advisers to Governor Clinton," he says.

The reentry of Ross Perot into the race, however, has been greeted with bafflement and dismay by Germans who already have enough trouble understanding the rituals of American politics - the bands, the baby-kissing, and the families on display.

No matter who heads the next administration, however, "we know that they will be present in Europe, will stay in the alliance; we can thrash out trade differences," the official says. "We don't have any fear of a surge in American isolationism."

That view is not unanimous. Ulrich Irmer, the Free Democrats' foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag, mentions worries about "tendencies toward isolationism in America," and expresses the hope that even after inevitable further troop withdrawals from Europe, "there will be an American military presence that is more than symbolic."

Thies notes a general concern "that a Clinton administration would not be that patient with the Europeans - would expect a strong security contribution, and would proceed faster with the pullout of troops."

Karsten Voigt, a Social Democrat in the Bundestag and a member of his party's executive, agrees that there is a "convergence" between Clinton and Bush on foreign policy. "We could live with either of them."

On domestic issues, which he says are dominating this election, he expresses an "inclination" toward the Democrats.

On environmental issues, Mr. Voigt prefers the Clinton-Gore team. "I know [Sen. Al] Gore quite well," he says. At the Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" in June, he says, the US government's positions on proposed regulations were too cautious even for the conservative German government. He sees the Democrats as more globally minded, more sensitive to developing-world issues than the Republicans.

Press coverage of the American election has been fairly extensive, if not overwhelming. That Clinton has attracted so many business leaders' support was a major news item, as was his Hollywood bash with Barbra Streisand.

The Democratic nominee's call for a more active state role seems to strike a chord here in Germany, even at the conservative end of the political spectrum, whereas the traditional Republican less-is-more view of government seems baffling. A report in the weekly Die Zeit about Clinton's proposals for apprenticeships and job training managed to make him sound positively German.

Tensions between the German and American peoples have eased since the early 1980s, a time marked by decisions on the placement of mid-range nuclear missiles on German soil. Americans were worried about Germans drifting off to the East bloc, and Germans worried about Americans' apparent willingness to turn their homeland into a nuclear free-fire zone.

Thies notes that 1 million Germans are expected to visit the US this year; exchange rates explain part, but not all, of this figure. He sees great German interest in the US, and compares the tours that many young Germans take to the US to the "grand tours" of the European continent by educated young Englishmen.

If Germans' interest in the American election is less this time around than in earlier decades, the Social Democrats' Voigt says, "It's not so much because of lack of interest as because they don't have so much to hope for or so much to fear" from the outcome. With the tensions of the early 1980s eased, "It's a different world."

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