Washington Talk in Bonn

A GROUP of Social Democrats in the German Bundestag and American journalists gathered in a cool downstairs meeting room in the government quarter in Bonn the other day to beat the heat and consider the state of German-American relations. One of the conclusions reached: Some of the most important themes may be missing from the German-American dialogue, which has to get beyond just security issues.

This quite informal discussion took place in the shadow of a larger, vastly more public one: the historic debate within the Bundestag over German support for the United Nations reaction force (originally the rapid reaction force) in the former Yugoslavia. In the end the Bundestag voted June 30, by a clear majority, to ratify the Cabinet decision, reached earlier in the week, to participate in the force. For the first time in half a century, Germany has decided to send combat troops abroad.

It was one of those rare occasions when the German and the American news agendas matched: The stories on the debate and vote were on the front pages of both the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the International Herald Tribune.

Certainly, security issues will be central to the German-American dialogue, and problematic, as the Bosnian experience has shown.

Americans are going to see the question of an eastward expansion of NATO, to give another example, differently from Europeans, especially given that, as one commentator put it the other day, most Americans think Bratislava is a sausage.

But where, as one of the German interlocutors in the downstairs conversation put it, is the German-American dialogue on issues like poverty or protection of the environment?

Poverty and the protection of the environment are perhaps all-too-typical subjects for left-of-center politicians to be thinking about. And Germans tend to have a different idea than Americans of the appropriate role of government as an agent of social action. Freimut Duve, the Bundestag member who had gathered the group, made an observation about how hard it is for Germans to understand the verbal, and indeed physical, attacks made on public servants in America.

More traditional foreign-policy issues also seemed to be on the group's minds, however. Carefully phrased concerns were voiced about an America that looks to be turning in on itself.

These Germans understand the Contract With America; but what about the political leadership's contract with the rest of the world, to which it clearly has obligations?

Granted, these Social Democrats would be considered far left on the American political spectrum. But they like America and Americans; they speak English fluently, their language skills often going back to years of university or even high school study in the United States. They appreciate the way the German health-care system, and briefly before that, the German apprenticeship system, had their Warholesque 15 minutes of fame in the United States back at the beginning of the Clinton era.

But nowadays the politicians come back from their visits to Washington a bit worried. The German parliamentarians see their counterparts, especially those in the House, caught in a time-space push-pull. Representatives serve two-year terms that have them in a perpetual reelection campaign, with little time to master nuances of issues, especially those with no resonance in the home district. (No enthusiasm here for term limits.) And the Germans notice how the sheer size of a country with five time zones (if you count Alaska and Hawaii) tends to stretch Congress pretty thin as members seek to keep in touch at home and in Washington.

Does the US Congress have time to take international relations seriously? That is a question on the minds of Germans who have been in Washington lately.

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