- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

One watches the unfolding political scandal in Germany with mixed emotions. It is particularly sad to see a statesman of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's stature brought so low. He was the indispensable man in German and European unification. Only this fall, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of communist domination in Eastern and Central Europe, the most significant historical event in the second half of the 20th century. Now seeing Mr. Kohl toppled is like watching a huge oak tree fall, bringing down much of the surrounding vegetation. A sad sight indeed. How much of Mr. Kohl's reputation will be left standing in history's view? That depends on factors yet unknown such as whether there is a jail term at the end of the road for the man who ruled Germany for 17 years. Why Helmut Kohl?

And yet, there is also a sense of vindication of the American political system in all of this, which is often variously accused by foreigners, and especially Europeans, of being either too corrupt or too puritanical. American political campaigns are routinely derided for their banality, showmanship and huge expense. "Don't you have to be rich to be president?" visitors from more egalitarian parts like to ask. To which the answer is, of course, "No." Is Bill Clinton a rich man? Is Ronald Reagan? Was Richard Nixon?

During the Lewinsky affair, foreign reporters wanted to know over and over why it mattered that the president had lied about this insignificant detail of his private life, or tried to influence others to commit perjury. "As a nation, Americans have just fallen off the turnip truck," was the verdict abroad. How naive can you get?

But ethics clearly matter. Whereas the American political system is indeed awash in cash, more than any other in the world, says Frank Vogl of Transparency International, an organization that tracks corruption worldwide, Americans have a relatively clean system, "because they probably have better watchdog institutions." The appalling shenanigans of the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign in 1996, from map-room coffee klatches to nights in the Lincoln bedroom to photo-ops with Chinese arms merchants, did raise the cash, but they were also brought to light and soon. "Looser libel laws make the press better suited to do its job as watchdog," says Mr. Vogl. "The judiciary is as independent as any in the world, or maybe more. The separation of power means that congressional committees have independent oversight, which does not exist in a parliamentary system." This week, the Supreme Court upheld the $1,000 limit on political contributions, keeping in place a political straitjacket first put in place post-Watergate in 1976.

It could even be argued that these things matter more today than ever. Corruption, such as is now unraveling in Germany, is a spreading disease all through the globalized economic and political system which has risen on the ashes of the bipolar Cold War world. In some places like Russia, "free markets" and privatization are now synonymous in the popular mind with gangsterism and theft. Look where you like, from the new ruling classes of the former communist countries (often more than passingly similar to the old ruling class), to Asia's crony capitalism, to Latin American narco-corruption, to African nepotism and despotism. Corruption is on a roll.

Not that there have not been attempts to do something about it. There is the U.N. General Assembly's "Declaration on Corruption," the Organization of American States' (OAS) Convention on corruption, and the OECD "Anti-Bribery Convention." How to enforce them, of course, is the big question. Transparency International's survey of business executives from major foreign companies doing business in emerging markets astonishingly showed that only 5 percent said they were familiar with the "OECD Anti-Bribery Convention," 50 percent had heard something or other about it, and 45 percent knew nothing about it at all.

Turning the focus back to Europe, one is also amazed to find that major European countries have not ratified this convention. Not Spain, for instance; or Italy. Or France. Neither has the Netherlands; nor Switzerland. Not that it is necessarily a guarantee of probity. Germany has both signed and ratified the convention and ranks high among the countries perceived by investors as close to corruption-proof which it evidently isn't.

"The German scandal in a way is something that was waiting to happen in Europe," Mr. Vogl says. "Transparency is a huge problem." Campaign finance is much less regulated there than in the United States, and there is still the notion floating around that politicians can hold jobs and be on corporate boards and that political campaigns can be inexpensively done. But the money has to come from somewhere.

Where it came from in the case of Mr. Kohl remains to be seen, as does the kind of influence it bought for the people who poured it into his pockets. The former chancellor is accused of pocketing $6.3 million from anonymous sources over two decades; he is refusing to name names. Many millions more went into the coffers of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), some reportedly from a French oil company acting on behalf of the French government. All of which helped keep the CDU in power and Mr. Kohl, who is not really suspected of personal enrichment, at the helm. Now, a lot of people should still be grateful he was there, but it ought to have been by other means.

E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

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