Hugo Paemen, the congenial ambassador of the European Union in Washington for the past four years, retired this week. Or so we thought. Paemen, still youthful and energetic at 65, plans to keep a foot in both continents, lecturing on European affairs in Washington and consulting for European Commission chief Romano Prodi in Brussels. He would not say which of Washington's universities has asked him to teach, so keep guessing.

Paemen enjoyed every day of his term here, he said, because there "is always something happening." The least attractive of his tasks was steering through the many and unavoidable trade tiffs between Europe and America: the Helms-Burton Act punishing those who violate sanctions on Cuba, Iran and Libya; banana policy splits (no pun intended, really); the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger; and the noisy debate over hushkits--polluting contraptions made in the United States and banned in Europe that are used to reduce the roar of aging aircraft engines.

"It was never a war, but there were challenging discussions and arguments. That is what life is about when you have such integrated economies working in the same transatlantic marketplace. When there is traffic on the highway [traffic being a metaphor for trade and investment relations], you risk more accidents," Paemen observed. To maintain a rational dialogue on some of these issues was sometimes taxing, he said. But there were also some exciting moments, the most exhilarating of which was the introduction of the euro, the single currency adopted by most European Union members.

"As you know there was a lot of skepticism in the United States," he said. "There was this kind of cynical smile and people telling us: Come back when you have done it and we will see. The fact that we got there and that we succeeded is very satisfying."

The most gratifying accomplishment of his ambassadorship, he noted, was the establishment of 10 European Union centers at leading American universities such as Harvard and schools in California, New York, Georgia, Wisconsin and Missouri. Out of 67 universities that were candidates, the choice had to be narrowed to 10 because of funding limitations. Establishment of these centers proved a growing interest in European affairs, he said. Paemen said they will offer courses about European integration and its impact on the United States and the rest of the world.

Paemen said he has enjoyed collaborating with counterparts from EU member states. "Cooperation was so good, we felt we were working for the same goal and not for one single moment was there controversy between us," he said. "When you are outside, you realize the benefit of sticking together . . . unlike the squabbles we have in Brussels."

Obasanjo's Sharpened Insights

When you have been around the political block a few times, like Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has, you sharpen your insights. Obasanjo, a former general, ruled Nigeria in the late 1970s. He handed over power to civilians only to see another military dictatorship take over. But now he is back in the driver's seat. He bet on democracy, and it brought him back to power when Gen. Sani Abacha died and the military agreed to free elections after a transitional period.

Asked if his government will try any of Abacha's generals for corruption in which Nigeria's resources were plundered and revenue was stashed in foreign banks, Obasanjo answered with tempered reflexes: "I don't think you should crucify a man for being loyal, only for the crimes he has committed." It would indeed be a perfect world if leaders who seize power after times of turmoil can actually remember this observation and separate politics and revenge from good governance.

Wisdom and democracy, however, do not seem to be enough ammunition to resurrect a nation. Here last week on his second visit to Washington since he was elected, Obasanjo sought debt relief and investment in his oil-rich nation. "I believe democracy is good for us for its intrinsic value, in that it reaches everybody and we must cherish it and defend it," he said. But he sounded a note of caution about the difficulties involved in making basic services such as education and health available to all Nigerians, a "democracy dividend" he may not be able to afford. "Where do I get the money?" he asked.

He said his government is trying to stamp out corruption, which is not a simple task. "You cannot treat it by sticks alone or by carrots alone or just by carrot and stick," he said. "You need the right dose of stick and the right dose of carrot, but even if I have the stick, how do I get the carrot?"

In meetings with President Clinton and U.S. officials, Obasanjo made a strong bid for building a strong Nigerian military for peacekeeping and other purposes. "In Sierra Leone, we have been doing the work," he said. "What remains is a United Nations peacekeeping force. The United States should give its support to what I essentially call an African solution."