Last Monday, Franz Ludwig Stauffenberg, a lawmaker from Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union Party and a member of the parliamentary defense committee, picked up the morning newspaper and read a quotation from President Carter.
Carter, the paper reported, had told a group visiting the White House that if the U.S. Senate rejected the strategic arms limiation treaty (SALT II) that "some European countries might very well turn to the Soviet Union and put an anchor out to the East" and wreck the NATO alliance.
Carter's remark angered and annoyed Stauffenberg, who then submitted questions for the Bonn government to answer for the record. His questions brought into focus the growing concern among some Europeans that it is not the alliance but American leadership that is threatening to unravel.
Stauffenberg wanted to know if the Bonn government knew which European government had given Washington the impression that it might lean to the East. His aim, Stauffenberg said later, was to clear the air and establish that West Germany's ties to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are independent of the fate of the SALT II ratification process.
On Wednesday, the government sent its answers to Stauffenberg's questions.
Without relating them to Carter's speech, the federal government said "There is no reason whatsoever to link the loyalty of members of NATO, and especially the Federal Republic of Germany, to the SALT ratification process." Case closed.
The exchange received virtually no public notice here. Inquiries to high officials in Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's office and the Foreign Ministry produced similarly brief explanations.
Carter's remakes, they said, were viewed in Bonn as purely as U.S. consumption. In short, the President could say anything he felt he needed to say to get SALT ratified and not worry about West Germany getting excited. Even some members of Stauffenberg's own conservative coalition privately criticized him as "not too clever" in risking criticism of Carter at this crucial time.
Yet Stauffenberg, in his lonely outrage, may have a point that will survive long after the treaty's fate is settled.
ythe idea that NATO might unravel if SALT is not approved has become a principal theme for the Carter administration during the past several months. But Stauffenberg finds its use publicly by the president to be "alarming, counterproductive and simply not sensible," precisely the kind of thing, he says, that can weaken the alliance. Over the long run, he says, the thing that might threaten NATO most is a lack of long-term confidence in U.S. leadership. A statement such as the one the president made, Stauffenberg says he believes, is a perfect example.
Unquestionably every West European allied leader desperately wants the U.S. Senate to ratify the SALT II pact. They do not want a new Cold War, or policy of allied confrontation with the Soviet Union. They want to go on to SALT III and the question of nuclear arms in Europe.
The thirst of the West Europeans for good relations with the Soviets also is both palpable and understandable. They live very close to the Soviet Union, with its huge army just over the East German border. They have relatives in the East whom they like to visit, and business that they like to transact.
On the other hand, American's allies in Europe are not ready to jump into bed with the Soviets. NATO is, after all, all alliance among nations with similar values. It is not just a political-military pact.
The alliance is never likely to unravel willingly, nor are its members likely to "put an anchor out" to the communist-bloc life style and concept of restricted human rights that Europeans understand better than most Americans.
The problem is to keep the NATO alliance from self-destructing, from becoming so cynical that it becomes weak and easily intimidated. Combating this requires skillful leadership.
The episode in the Bundestag last week, and the reaction of the Bonn government, can be viewed two ways. It can be seen as a very sophisticated understanding of domestic U.S. politics by the West German government and of the need to be cool and not challenge Carter's assumption about European attitudes because the main goal is to get SALT II approved.
The second way is the more cynical view expressed by Stauffenberg, that Carter is toying with fundamental Western unity and saying things that do not help the more distant challenge.