Willy Brandt: go-between in US-Soviet dispute?

Did Jimmy Carter ask former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt to act as "honnest broker" between the United States and the Soviet Union now that the relations between the two superpowers have plummeted to the freezing point?

Yes, says West Germany's largest news magazine, Der Spiegel, in its latest edition. Moreover, the magazine claims that the Soviets have also made a similar approach to the famed architect of Bonn's ostpolitik.

According to the report, published earlier this week, Moscow's ambassador to West Germany, Vladimir Semyonov, delivered an informal message to Mr. Brandt on Feb. 4 that ended with the cagey reminder of how useful contacts had proven in previous times of trouble.

One week later Willy Brandt met with President Carter in the White House. Mr. Brandt had officially traveled to Washington to present the report of the North-South commission on international development issues which he had chaired for the past two years. Afterward, the President reportedly drew the ex-chancellor aside and asked him to prepare to carry a presidential message to Moscow.

Der Spiegel quotes Mr. Carter as having said, "We must start up a new dialogue." Mr. Brandt then replied, "I think that I would be welcome in Moscow.'

In bonn, the report caused consternation, confusion, and ultimately barely concealed conflict between MR. Brandt and his successor Helmut Schmidt. The chancellor's spokesman Klaus Bolling tersely announced that he knew nothing about America or Soviet approaches to Mr. Brandt who, even after his fall from power in 1974, stayed on as the influential chairman of Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party (SPD). Mr. Bolling pointedly added, "A broker's role does not correspond to the Federal Republic's limited weight in world affairs. We would overreach ourselves."

Washington sources have similarly denied that Willy Brandt was asked to act as a go-between, even though they did grant that talks about "acute issues" such as Afghanistan had taken place when Mr. Brandt visited the White House.

However, Highly placed sources at the SPD headquarters in Bonn insist that the gist of Der Spiegel's report was true. According to these sources, Mr. Carter did take the initiative in suggesting that Willy Brandt use his expertise as architect of Bonn's ostpolitik as well as his solid ties to Soviet party chief Leonid brezhnev for the purpose of rekindling a dialogue between Washington and Moscow.

The SPD sources also confirmed that Soviet Ambassador Semyonov did deliver a "nonpaper" (diplomatic jargon for an unofficial message) in early February that hinted at a message of mediation. Nonetheless, the SPD's secretary-general Egon Barr was careful to stress that there was "no invitation" from Moscow.

This interplay of innuendo and half- hearted denial seems to add up to more than a mere "soap bubble," as top West German government sources have hastened to claim. It would hardly come as a suprise if Washington and Moscow were, indeed, looking for unconventional channels of communication precisely because the rising din of a new cold war has overwhelmed the traditional ones.

Yet it remains unclear whether Willy Brandt is acting on his own or with the tacit blessing of the three principals: Carter, Brezhnev, and Schmidt. According to American diplomats in Germany Mr. Carter even asked Polish Party chief Edward Gierek to act as go-between.

Bonn's vociferous denials certainly highlight the awkward position of the Schmidt government amid the speculations centering on MR. Brandt. For weeks Chancellor Schmidt has tried hardest to demonstrate his loyalty to the United States even while privately deploring Jimmy Carter's haphazard handling of the Afghan affair.

Apart from stealing Mr. Schmidt's thunder, Willy Brandt's foray into high-level mediation between the superpowers would hardly strengthen the Chancellor's credibility vis-a-vis Washington. Mr. Brandt's mission would suggest even-handedness and balance, where the Bonn government wants to demonstrate its reliability as an ally. Said a source close to Chancellor Schmidt, "We are not neutral. Hence this is a moot enterprise."

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