Nothing perhaps has more shaprly demonstrated the difference today in interests and political will between West Germany and the United States than the parade to Moscow of West German businessmen since the Afghan crisis began.
For U.S. officials, the spectacle has been irritating. For West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who last week came under increased pressure to go along with an expanded economic boycott list drafted by the United States it represents a powerful political lobby.
Begrudgingly, Schmidt has committed West Germany to limit economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, although this pledge is heavily conditioned on getting the rest of Europe to play along. In the meantime, West Germany's business chiefs speak out regulary against sanctions.
Their influences is an important political consideration for the West German chancellor. At the same time, their arguments appear to match Schmidt's own thinking, and he uses them as a convenient shield against U.S. urgings. When Schmidt visited President Carter in Washington earlier this month, he brought along a team of business and labor leaders to represent West Germany's interests.
One of them was Otto Wolff von Amerongen, owner of a large manufacturing company that trades with the Soviets and president of West Germany's Association for Industry and Trade.
"We have a certain experience with embargoes," said Wolff in a recent interview. In 1962, after the Berlin Wall had gone up, the United States called on its Atlantic allies to stop shipping steel pipe to the Soviet Union. The German honored the request, only to discover later that other European nations had not done so.Eventually the embargo collapsed, and the Germans promised themselves they would never forget. "We were much more of an American baby at the time than we are today," said Wolff.
Wolff sees areas of contining conflict between West Germany and the United States over the questions of economic sanctions.
COCOM list. This list, drawn up by the so-called Coordinating Committee, based in Paris, which includes representatives from the NATO countries plus Japan, restricts the sale of certain goods of strategic importance to communist countries. The United States wants to expand this list, and last week sent a lengthy, detailed proposal of additions to the Europeans and Japan. Wolf opposes expanses, arguing that sanctions are generally ineffective. Moreover, instituting an embargo on manufacture goods, he says, has a more complicating effect on business than ordering a grain embargo that can be reversed easily in the event international tensions ease.
"With industrial goods, you cannot close and open the door as easily," Wolff said. "Long-term contracts are often involved. Once they are interrupted, they will take a long time to restore."
He also said that U.S. moves to deny the Soviets certain high-technology goods could backfire. For instance, he cited a proposed restriction on high technology drilling equipment. This would certainly hamper Soviet development of their own oil reserves. Wolff, which in turn would make them more interested in pursuing Persian Gulf sources, thus increasing the chance of U.S.-Soviet conflict in the region.
Finally, Wolff doubted that the United States will be able to carry out its announced intention of differentiating trade restrictions between the Soviet Union and its Eastern European partners.
Credits. West Germany, unlike other European countries, does not provde the Soviet with direct trade credits. But it does guarantee private bank credits for West German-Soviet trade. These guarantees were written into a 25-year trade agreement signed by Bonn and Moscow last year, and Wolff said that any move to stop these guarantees could be construed by the Soviets as a breach of contract, toughing off a trade war. U.S. officials say the language in the West German-Soviet agreement is vague and leaves room for Bonn to alter the guarantees.
The United States is pressing West Germany at least to shorten the time of the credites it is willing to guarnantee, now set at 8 1/2 years. Schmidt has said he will do this if all other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development members do likewise. "I am against any politicization of these guarantees," Wolff said. "If we do it with the Soviet Union, the Arabs will come to us next and ask us to do it against Israel, and so on. Then what do we say?"
At the same time, Wolff acknowledged that there are precedents. The guarantees were adjusted at least twice in the past to limit West German trade with Chile and South Africa.
Undercutting. Bonn has pledged that West German business will not undercut U.S. firms withdrawing from deals in the Soviet Union. But the West German definition of "undercutting" is a narrow one.
"We mean that we will not take over someone else's business if he is ordered out by the United States," said Wolff, "but that does not apply to new deals."
Closer relations with Eastern Europe has led to a tripling of West German trade with that region. West German exports to the Eastern bloc (not including East Germany, which Bonn counts separately) totaled $7.7 billion last year. West German trade with the Soviet Union alone reached nearly $4 billion, about four times the value of U.S-Soviet trade.