During most of the years since World War II, West German politicians were hardly capable of making a major decision without looking over their shoulders and asking each other, "What will the Americans think of this?"
It still happens. But times are changing. And why not?
World War II ended long ago. West Germany's credentials as a good ally are well established. Democratic government is firmly entrenched. Increasingly the country is being run by men and women who do not remember Hitler's Third Reich, and therefore feel no responsibility for its crimes; they came to political maturity during an era when America's own performance, both at home and abroad, has been less than impressive.
The U.S. relationship with Britain and France is far from trouble-free. The fact that politicians in Washington and Bonn also find themselves on different wave lengths from time to time should not of itself disturb anybody.
Still, it is difficult for a knowledgeable American to visit West Germany these days without wondering about the future of the U.S.-West German relationship.
If you don't dig too deeply, things are in good shape.
In the last national elections, held 33 months ago, West German voters rebuked the Social Democratic Party (SPD)--which showed signs of veering toward a neutralist, even anti-American, orientation--by handing a decisive victory to a coalition of the conservative Christian Democrats and the small Free Democratic Party.
A few months later a solid majority in the Bundestag approved the deployment of U.S.-made missiles despite heavy-handed threats from Moscow and enormous demonstrations by anti-nuclear forces.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl is an outspoken friend and supporter of the Atlantic Alliance. And, with the next national elections only 15 months away, the polls indicate that his Christian Democratic Union leads the opposition Social Democrats.
However, the real situation is not so clear-cut. Neither Kohl's party nor the SPD has much chance of winning a ruling majority in the Bundestag on its own. Historically, whichever of the two major parties gets more votes must either form a coalition with the small Free Democrats or enter a grand coalition with the other major party.
The Free Democrats have fallen on hard times, however, and may not get enough votes in 1987 to qualify as a coalition partner. If that proves to be the case, the next West German government may be either a grand and quarrelsome coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats, or a partnership of the Social Democrats with the upstart Greens.
To quote an eminent German pollster, "The German situation is characterized by the biggest gap anywhere in values between parents and children."
The most dramatic manifestation of this generation gap is the emergence of the Greens--a self-righteous, radical-chic amalgamation of environmentalists and anti-American neutralists who oppose NATO and favor unilateral disarmament.
The Greens still enjoy the support of less than 10% of the electorate, but they have replaced the Free Democrats as West Germany's third-ranking party.
Hardly anybody among the Social Democrats relishes the idea of trying to run the country in a coalition with the Greens, even if the Greens are so disposed. However, SPD Chairman Willy Brandt, among others, has convinced himself that by moving left the Social Democrats can absorb the Greens and stop defections from the SPD's militant wing.
Andreas von Bulow, chairman of an SPD study commission on national-security issues, has called for a 40% cut in the West German army--and a long-term phasing out of the U.S. troop presence.
Oskar Lafontaine, a leading SPD politician from Saarbrucken, has called for withdrawal from NATO's military infrastructure--a proposal that has been echoed by Ulf Skirke, leader of the party's youth organization.
SPD moderates say that such talk should not be taken too seriously, that the party's mainstream still favors full participation in the alliance in partnership with the United States. Brandt has passed the word that these fundamentals will be reaffirmed in the new party program now under development.
The fact remains that SPD officials in general have a tendency to speak of the great powers as equally threatening apparitions--with the benefit of the doubt, if anything, going to the Soviets.
It is noteworthy that Johannes Rau, the party's candidate for the chancellorship, opened his campaign this month with a pledge to take a critical approach to U.S. policy in Europe.
The Christian Democrats are much more on the American wavelength. But they, too, must operate in a political environment that is colored by an anti-American bias in the broadcast media--and poisoned by the blissful insensitivity of the American political system to allied concerns. For example:
--For years European leaders, sometimes at great political inconvenience to themselves, have upheld the necessity of maintaining a nuclear balance of terror between East and West. Yet President Reagan didn't bother to consult or inform them before making his March, 1983, speech announcing "Star Wars" and seemingly throwing out nuclear deterrence as an operable doctrine.
--Washington rejected the "walk in the woods" formula, which involved a compromise on medium-range missiles that might have been acceptable to Bonn, without checking with Kohl until after the fact.
--Within the space of a few days, seemingly authoritative Reagan Administration sources came up with dramatically different explanations of how far Star Wars research might go without violating the 1972 ABM treaty. Exasperated Bonn officials protest that this sort of thing makes it very hard to give unconditional support to Washington's negotiating position at the arms-control talks in Geneva.
As a power with global responsibilities, the United States is bound to see things differently from West Germany. However, Western Europe is this country's first line of defense, just as the U.S. nuclear umbrella is the ultimate guarantor of the freedom and independence of our allies.
It's in our own interest to refrain from careless words and actions that bring comfort to West Germany's anti-Americans while making life difficult for our friends. But the West Germans would be equally unwise to fall into the habit of pulling Uncle Sam's beard to prove their own independence.
Especially among young German politicians, that seems to be the trend.