Chancellor Cabbage and Herr Red Cabbage

April 19, 1994|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Given its druthers, the American foreign-policy establishment would be content to have Helmut Kohl remain as chancellor of Germany forever. Since this does not seem to be in prospect, his many status-quo admirers here would settle for his election next October to five more years -- and then worry about the future.

There are good reasons for the U.S. level of comfort with the Kohl-led right-center coalition that has been in power for the past dozen years.

The sixtysome chancellor is of an age that enabled him as a teen-ager to witness the extraordinary generosity of American occupiers after the defeat of Hitler Germany. Then, more than 40 years later, the American government gave him unstinting support in his daring quest for reunification when the British and the French were holding back.

In other words, despite the occasional differences that arise even among close allies, Mr. Kohl owes us and we, in turn, have reason to be grateful for the billions of Deutschemarks he has sent eastward to prop up the aftermath nations of the old Soviet empire. His loyalty to NATO is unquestioned. His willingness to goad a reluctant Germany into a greater peacekeeping role for the post-Cold War era was something U.S. policy makers would not have dared to predict three years ago.

Yet Mr. Kohl is in trouble. Reunification has left a bitter taste in both the western and eastern parts of his country. The economy has been in the doldrums. His Christian Democratic Union party is losing local and state elections by the batch.

And in October's race for the chancellorship he will be facing a younger-generation opponent, Rudolph Scharping, 46, who is widely regarded as the most imposing candidate the opposition Social Democratic Party has fielded against the perennially lucky and victorious Mr. Kohl.

Mr. Scharping, as is the forte of ambitious German politicians of the left, came to Washington last week to endure the scrutiny of polite but somewhat nervous Americans.

He met with his contemporary, Bill Clinton, at the White House and they reportedly found themselves in general accord on a domestic issue with resonance in both countries: raising taxes on the wealthy. He visited Capitol Hill, held press briefings and delivered a lecture whose major purpose was to show that he is entitled to his nickname of Rotkohl, or red cabbage, and therefore is not really so different from the Kohl, or cabbage, he wishes to replace.

''There are no significant differences between the federal [Kohl] government and my party when it comes to major issues of German foreign and security policy,'' he declared.

''The continuity which the Federal Republic of Germany has shown in the roughly 45 years of its existence is important; my country will remain reliable and predictable. . . . Germany is a close friend of the USA, and it is firmly integrated in NATO, and so it will remain. . . We need the American presence in Europe.''

Germany-watchers in Washington have no doubt that Mr. Scharping is sincere in his pronouncements and genuinely would try to lead a centrist government if he comes to power. There is, however, a problem.

In his party's ideological spectrum, he is to the right of every leader the Social Democrats have put up since their left wing scuttled former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

One nagging question is whether Mr. Scharping can control party activists once the need for election-year discipline is over. Another nagging question is how he can govern if he has no choice but to link up with the Green party to form a majority coalition in the Bundestag.

The Greens first made their mark as passionate environmentalists who indeed changed the German agenda on saving the earth.

But for the purposes of this election year, their chief claim to fame, or notoriety, lies in their call for abolition of the German Army, the dissolution of NATO and a ban on German participation in U.N. peacekeeping.

In his Washington appearance, Mr. Scharping dismissed these positions as ''nonsense'' and said he would have no part of them. But they remain an unsettling cloud, no matter how much he tries to wave it away.

The centrist Free Democratic Party, the perennial junior coalition partner which for 25 years has determined whether the CDU or the SPD will govern, has declared it will not link up with a Social Democrat party that could even countenance such iconoclastic security views.

This stand is greeted with salty cynicism by some who believe the Free Democrats will jump left or right rather than be consigned to the political wilderness, a minority party out of power.

But for now, the FDP remains bound to Chancellor Kohl -- a development that has led to some thinking here that his coalition may lose 18 local and regional elections this year but win the big 19th election for the chancellorship in October.

Maybe so, but there is said to be a steely side to the accommodating Mr. Scharping. His mettle will be tested a-plenty in what promises to be a very close election. And it would be tested even more if he holds his present lead in the polls and comes to power as head of an unruly Red-Green ''traffic light'' coalition that would surely shake up American-German relations.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of The Baltimore Sun's editorial pages.

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