Criticism of U.S. policy being uttered privately by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is disturbing U.S. officials here and in Washington and may be altering the attitude that West Germans take toward the United States.
The chancellor's private vision of a Europe of the future that is increasingly reunited, at least culturally, from France to the Soviet Union is causing foreign diplomats concren about the future relationship between the United States and its most important military and economic ally in Western Europe.
At a private dinner earlier this month -- before President Carter's success in the Middle East -- the chancellor is known to have said that the United States had given up its economic leadership as far back as the Nixon administration and had no ambition to recover it. He did not see anybody in New York or Washington training for the Job, he quipped. The Japanese would sit on the fence and follow whoever leads, so it was now up to the Europeans, especially the French and Germans, to lead.
Futhermore, the chancellor added that America had lacked guts in Angola a few years ago when Congress prevented U.S. action there.
Technically, Schmidt's remarks were off the record. But at his elbow sat the U.S. ambassador to Bonn and some 40 other persons from France, England and West Germany, including a few journalists who were there to listen.
In other words, there was no way that the chancellor's views were going to stay private and he clearly knew that, even though he would never say such things publicly. The chancellor has, in fact, said other harsh things about U.S. economic and political leadership from time over the past few years as relations bounce back and forth between bad and good, also in these quasi-private forums.
It is precisely because Schmidt's private views are so well known that there is a danger in legitimizing an anti-American attitude here, despite the chancellor's continual public pledges of allegiance to American leadership.
The question arises then of what Schmidt actually believes. What emerges from observing and listening to him are two things: one is that Germany has paid its dues since the end of the war and has, by its performance, earned more independence of thought and action to protect its interests in the absence of what Bonn sees as a declining U.S. world role.
Second, Schmidt would like nothing more than to see what he perceives as strng American leadership again but cannot contain his impatient intellect or his fabled, arrogant tongue in the meantime, since he tends always to sense global economic crisis just around the corner.
This has some danger for Schmidt, which also may not be recognized here. He is without a doubt very powerful personally in West Germany. The conservative opposition has no effective challenger to him and he appears as powerful as postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer was at the peak of his influence. Yet, as one of Schmidt's Social Democratic Party colleagues warned him recently, it was precisely when Adenauer became so powerful that he made mistakes.
Schmidt's mistake may be his candor, which while generally an appreciated trait, has struck some observers as a trifle uncontrolled for a man in his position. He could therefore be very vulnerable to a counterattack from President Carter, who apparently has refrained from the type of bound-to-get-out personal sniping that Schmidt has engaged in.
If it were perceived here that Schmidt, through his personality had in fact driven a wedge into West Germany's relationship with its most important partner and protector, it could hurt the chancellor severely. Although he is strong, his party is not. His government rules by coalition and the opposition Christian Democratic Union, which remains friendlier to the United States, is bigger than the Social Democrats. During his 1976 campaign for the chancellery, Schmidt used his strong ties to Washington and the Ford admionistration in every major speech.
At the private dinner, Schmidt also mused about what he sees for the long-range future of Europe. The picture he painted was one similar to the last century, meaning, he said, a cross-fertilization of all European cultures, art and literature, East and West, a feeling once again of belonging to each other.
He spoke of French authors and Soviet authors. He said that obviously Germany would be the great benefactor because it could be reunited again in one house. Schmidt said this need not destory alliances, but that it was the Europe he hoped for as a German and as a European and that he really meant what he said.
What struck a number of listeners was that, perhaps instinctively, there was no mention of America or American culture in this mixture. A German professor immediately called this ommision to the chancellor's attention, saying the United States was the child of Europe while Russia has not been a part of European culture as commonly viewed.
An English editor said he had a sense of foreboding after listening to Schmidt.
Two weeks later, addressing the Bonn parliament, Schmidt said that as far as his coalition government was concerned, "There is no doubt about the significance of our relations with the United States. We trust in the protective function and the leading role of the United States... which is also desired in the fields of economic, currency and trade policy."
To the expanding circle of people who have heard Schmidt privately, however, those were very carefully chosen words, leaving room for a powerful yet puzzling chancellor who may at least be thinking about some shift in the traditional postwar course for his country.