Kohl Trips, Doesn't Fall

After his reunification triumph, the German chancellor has had setbacks; but the US-Germany relationship is too important for Washington to become impatient

CHANCELLOR Helmut Kohl appears to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Often underestimated, Mr. Kohl stunned the world with lightning-quick deftness on German reunification and a convincing reelection bid late last year. But where has all the momentum gone? The heavyweight German leader is wobbling badly, as seems his custom after major successes. He recently came to the United States for a reassuring ringside chat. More forthright dialogue will be needed as the US-German relationship moves into a new and less certain phase.

In the past few months, Kohl has been buffeted by charges that his coalition government failed to do enough in the Persian Gulf, tried to skimp on the bill, and then ignored American demands to show flexibility on interest rates and agricultural subsidies.

At home, Kohl has been bruised by the resignation of the head of the nation's central bank in the midst of spiraling and unanticipated costs of reunification; hurt politically by a series of recent defeats of fellow Christian Democrats in regional elections; and targeted by egg-throwing protesters in the eastern half of the country who are gravely disappointed that the German economic miracle means mass unemployment first, prosperity later.

But with Kohl's knees starting to buckle, is it smart for the US to boo the man from Bonn? German bashing, when Americans are beginning to question the affordability of their overseas commitments, could come into vogue in Congress and throughout the US. Because of its size, economic might, strategic location, and shared values, Germany will figure in critical US foreign policy considerations. It behooves Americans to talk frankly with Kohl as the new Germany and new Europe take form.

In the early 1980s Germany passed the test of alliance solidarity by stationing US medium-range missiles on its soil. There's no reason to take the same risk and station German troops on some important but far-off battlefield. There are better forms of burden-sharing. Washington should sort through its expectations of Bonn. An ally, yes, but what kind of ally? Legitimate expectations of Bonn's ``proper'' role in the post-cold-war world need to be conveyed and understood.

Constitutional constraints may limit German involvement in fighting aggression outside NATO's realm, but much of the world expects it to shoulder greater political, financial, and moral responsibility than it has so far. The task of absorbing 17 million more Germans will not stand as an excuse.

AT a minimum, it is right to press Bonn to crack down on private-sector exports of components that abet in the construction of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare facilities in such countries as Libya and Iraq. Bonn has the legal mechanisms in place - one of the toughest export laws on the books - but has sadly failed on enforcement. Even when it does respond (often at the prodding of US intelligence), the response is perceived to be tardy and lackluster.

While Bonn need not play the role of locomotive within the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized democracies, it can ill afford to foster a monetary policy based strictly on domestic concerns. Germany's high interest rates - deployed by the Bundesbank to foil the inflationary impact of reunification - run the risk of grounding the sluggish G-7 economies, including Germany's, on the shoals of German monetary conservatism. To his credit, Kohl made clear in remarks in Washington that economic ``convergence'' is at least part of the modern German vocabulary.

On trade, Washington should stand firm on its complaints about supports and subsidies to Bavarian farmers and German aerospace companies, but can also make the case that Germany's industrial playing field remains closed to foreign takeovers. On agriculture, Kohl said the European Community has made ``mistakes'' on subsidies and was willing to get the collapsed GATT process rolling again.

However impatient the US becomes with Bonn, it cannot afford to alienate a new Germany destined to play a central role on three fronts: shaping the Soviet future, shaping the European Community in the post-1992 single market, and using its Middle Eastern ties to help shape the future of that region.

Germany has major trade and financial interests in all three areas and will pursue those interests at its own pace. It has pledged more than $30 billion in grants and credit to Moscow since 1989. If Germany can promote stability in the Soviet Union and central Europe through official aid and private-sector investment, and if it can help Turkey on its path toward economic and political liberalization and integration with Europe, the US's long-term interests will be served.

Clearly, US-German relations have suffered as a result of Bonn's begrudging half-steps during the Gulf crisis. Kohl is doing his best to reassure the White House and Congress of his country's good standing as an ally. And the German leader has shown that he is prepared to take some heat at home. His about-face on new taxes, needed to help foot Bonn's $10 billion war bill and pay for reunification, may have cost his party votes at the regional polls. But Kohl, down and out for the moment, has proven hims elf resilient in the past. Whether he stands or falls ultimately rests with the demanding German electorate. It loves a decisive leader and abhors a waffler.

In Washington, Kohl referred to a favorite slogan coined by his colleague, President Bush: ``A partnership in leadership.'' It's time the chancellor shows some global leadership or the partnership with America will surely atrophy.

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