In the language of compromise

Michael Posner May 13 1985

In the language of compromise

Michael Posner May 13 1985

In the language of compromise


Michael Posner

The weather, for Bonn, was nothing out of the ordinary —overcast skies, intermittent drizzle and pervasive fog off the Rhine. In the rainspattered streets of the West German capital, security police—15,000 strong —stood ready with pistols and submachine-guns at checkpoints, communicating with walkie-talkies and questioning pedestrians. German sharpshooters patrolled rooftops in the government district, surveillance helicopters churned overhead and bombsniffing dogs prowled suspect corridors. The security operation, the most elaborate ever assembled for the annual summit of leading industrialized nations, was more than a simple display. Even before host Chancellor Helmut Kohl welcomed the presidents of the United States and France and the prime ministers of Canada, Britain, Italy and Japan, the Bonn fire department defused a 13lb. bomb concealed in a briefcase outside the offices of West Germany’s arms industry association. Police blamed leftwing terrorists, who also took credit last week for bomb blasts in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Brussels which killed two people.

Within the security net, the 11th annual economic summit went off with its accustomed precision. On Thursday there were traditional bilateral talks designed to explore positions likely to be staked out. On Friday the summit leaders issued their expected political statement-much of it scripted in advance —endorsing the U.S. proposals put forward at the Geneva arms talks with the Soviet Union and urging Moscow “to act positively to achieve significant agreements there.” Then, on Saturday, before the seven leaders posed for their annual “family photo opportunity,” they released the final communiqué, an eightpage document that glossed over disagreements in the ambiguous language of compromise. Later, emerging under Bonn’s leaden skies, the summiteers stood for the cameras on the front stairs of the Palais Schaumburg, the imposing 19th-century building where, around a circular table, most of their discussions took place.

Like its predecessors, the Bonn gathering offered collective endorsements for the special interests of specific countries. The leaders supported France’s plan to combat drought in Africa. And

they endorsed U.S. proposals for fighting international drug traffickers. Still, the aura of neatness—as tidy as the flawless Palais lawns—did not dispel an impression of underlying discord. For one thing, the summit coincided with

40th-anniversary ceremonies marking the fall of Nazi Germany, an occasion that seemed to preoccupy the participants and strained German-American relations. For another, despite their best efforts, neither the United States nor France was able to achieve outright their principal objectives in Bonn— agreement, respectively, on a new round of multilateral trade negotiations and on an international monetary conference to stabilize the world’s volatile currency markets. As well, there were sharp exchanges on the question of economic sanctions after the U.S. decision to impose a trade embargo on Nicaragua (page 25). Declared Secretary of State George Shultz: “By and large, the Europeans don’t agree that sanctions are a good tool to use for foreign policy purposes.”

In fact, the discussions were largely overshadowed by an event that would occur 100 km away after the summit had

adjourned: President Ronald Reagan’s controversial wreath-laying visit to a German war cemetery at Bitburg, where 2,000 graves include about 49 members of the Waffen SS, elite Nazi storm troopers. The trip, intended to

symbolize the reconciliation of old enemies, ignited furious protests in the United States and abroad and led to a public scolding by author Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and himself a survivor of Buchenwald, a Nazi death camp. Said Wiesel to Reagan: “Find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims. The issue here is not politics but good and evil.”

But Reagan refused to change his plan, insisting that his decision was morally correct. “It’s not going to honor anyone,” he said on the eve of his departure for Europe. “It’s going there simply to more visibly bring to the people an awareness of the great reconciliation that has taken place.” Kohl concurred, adding that cancellation of the visit would “deeply offend the feelings of our people.” To limit the political damage, U.S. officials invited prominent Jewish

leaders and victims of Nazi terror to j oin the Bitburg ceremony, among them Wiesel and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. All declined. “It is theoretically possible that the man who killed my mother is buried there,” Weisenthal told Maclean ’s. “I am not going to allow myself to be used to cover up their blunders.”

Instead, a delegation of 500 students from 17 nations descended on the tiny West German town to protest the Sunday afternoon visit. For its part, Bonn added the relatives of Nazi resisters to

the list of participants, including the son of the late Lt.-Col. Claus von Stauf -fenberg, leader of a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Its purpose, one West German official explained, was “to make Bitburg more popular.” In the end, Reagan scheduled only 10 minutes in the cemetery, accompanied by Chancellor Kohl, and he made no formal remarks. In a memorial service earlier Sunday at Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover, the President’s prepared tribute cited the 50,000 Jews who died in the camp and the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

During the summit discussions French President François Mitter-

rand stubbornly resisted a U.S. proposal, backed by the other five nations, to convene a new round of global trade negotiations in 1986. Washington’s goal: to reduce tariff barriers which impede world trade and to counter a rising tide of protectionist sentiment. But Mitterrand said the first subject of any new trade negotiations would be agricultural subsidies—and the main targets would be French farmers. Despite intense, all-night discussions, Mitterrand refused to compromise. As a result, the final communiqué said only that the

new trading round should begin “as soon as possible,” adding pointedly: “Most of us agree that this should be in 1986.” Nor did the Reagan administration’s allies welcome the President’s argument that Europe and Japan should begin to expand their economies now that the American recovery may be starting to falter. “We’re asking for growth,” one U.S. official explained. “They’re asking that we deal with the [U.S. budget] deficit.” The summit’s Saturday communiqué was characteristically evenhanded, with each country citing its own program for economic development.

But Mitterrand’s own initiative—a call for an international conference

to reorganize the monetary system using fixed rates of exchange—did not win formal approval. “I get a little bit impatient about this generalized jabberwocky,” said British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal. “We’ve got very different economies. An exchange rate system has to respond to the underlying changes. So what are you going to do: ossify the changes and ossify the economies?” The summiteers did agree to “improve the functioning ” of the monetary system, but no action on the issue is likely before autumn at the earliest, when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund hold their annual meetings.

Informally, the Bonn seven discussed the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, the futuristic scheme for basing nonnuclear missile defence systems in outer space. But the allies are still weighing a Reagan administration invitation to join research for the so-called Star Wars program, and they avoided any endorsement. Said Shultz: “Some want to participate in it. Others are studying it. Others probably won’t.”

Canada may be one country that does not participate. Senior civil servants in Ottawa are now examining the American offer, but during a four-day London stopover en route to Bonn, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told reporters: “I am less than enthusiastic about Canada being involved in a process where we do not call the shots, where we do not set the orientation and over whose parameters we have no control.” Among observers, there is growing consensus that the Mulroney cabinet will ultimately reject participation because Canadian public opinion runs strongly against the Star Wars plan, offsetting whatever economic gains Ottawa’s involvement might bring.

Making his debut on the summit stage last week, observers said that Mulroney performed creditably, seeking to reconcile opposing opinions. The compromises, Mulroney later conceded, were “not perfect. Things got pretty tense. The Americans had to put a fair amount of water in their wine.” Still, he added that he viewed the summit as “a not inconsiderable success, given the extreme positions” staked out earlier.

The coming months will doubtless test that judgment. But in the streets of the capital, well away from the Palais lawns, thousands of demonstrators were delivering their own verdict on the summit. There, near a statue of Ludwig von Beethoven, who was born in Bonn, a group of West German “punkers” paraded—with portions of their ears cut off —in protest. To the summit’s orchestrations, they were as deaf as the renowned composer.

With Roy MacGregor in Bonn.

Roy MacGregor