Bonn Looks Eastward, and West Should Worry

<i> Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies</i>

For any recent and observant visitor to Bonn and Munich, two ongoing and interrelated political developments are immediately apparent.

The first is the crisis and controversy over American contentions that West German manufacturers helped Libya build and maintain a chemical weapons-producing factory protected by Soviet missiles. Washington’s accusation and the erstwhile cavalier evasiveness of German officials, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, pointed out the rough edges and fragility of the U.S.-German relationship. But it also pointed to a larger problem and development--the fact that the Atlantic Alliance itself, of which West Germany is a crucial member, has become something of a shell as the Germans look more and more eastward.

The Libyan controversy is the kind of tremor that can presage a fissuring earthquake in the U.S.-German relationship. It highlights what has been an ongoing process, the steady deterioration of the historically strong connections and ties between Washington and the European Economic Community in general, and West Germany in particular. The chemical warfare controversy followed on the heels of a tit-for-tat squabble over exported American beef, declared “unsafe” and rejected by the Germans on the grounds that it had been hormone-fed.

There is a great deal of outrage and anger being displayed in Bonn, along with periodic bursts of independence, and it comes from both the left and the right. A few weeks ago a German admiral, indignant at the pre-eminence of American issues in German military affairs, called for the end of NATO. He was dismissed, but his sentiments are not unpopular in today’s West Germany.


The country’s liberal-conservative coalition has been sending disquieting signals to Washington for quite some time now. From Bitburg onward, one can detect a growing resentment that is more important than periodic diplomatic snafus.

It is important to remember that Germany, since its unification by Bismarck, has never been a purely Western power. It has always looked eastward, either through the diplomatic efforts of Bismarck, the Weimar Republic under Gustav Stresemann, the Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939 or, finally, military aggression under Adolf Hitler. Today the tilt toward the East is complicated by the nature of relations between the two Germanys.

No responsible and patriotic government in Bonn can blithely abandon or ignore its eastern neighbor, which separates West Germany from Eastern Europe. This is not simply a question of reunification, but one that leads to the larger German interest of how to improve and normalize relations with the Soviet Union while still remaining a key NATO and Western military power. In the era of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, West Germany’s NATO membership is like a bone in the throat of a potential relationship with the Soviet Union. The reasons for Germany’s turn to the east are primarily economic, as markets there lure Germany’s aggressive businessmen and corporations.

These developments are not mere happenstance, but are demonstrations of a Germany coming of age and trying on a semblance of its old Bismarckian power, seeking to sustain the balance of power in Central and East-Central Europe. NATO, on the other hand, is a pure and undiluted Western European alliance that can no longer be sustained as Germany’s political and international epicenter.

What is disturbing from an American stance is that the Reagan Administration, in its last year of office, was preoccupied with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and with opening a relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization while trying to find ways to deal with international terrorism. While these are legitimate U.S. interests, they have been pursued at the expense of losing focus on the Atlantic Alliance. It is fair to ask whether the pursuit of Contra support, or putting an independent Palestinian state in place in the Middle East, should supersede the cementing of American ties with West Germany, its most significant NATO partner. Can a U.S.-Soviet relationship, now being evaluated by the Bush Administration national security team, ignore the growing evidence that NATO is close to becoming a dead entity? Can Washington ignore Germany’s drift to the east, accompanied in degrees by much of the Western European economic community?

In my view, the German dilemma must be at the center of the new Administration’s foreign-policy agenda. There can be no U.S.-Soviet policy without NATO, and without West Germany. The European Economic Community will become a kind of United States of Europe, not a governmental group but an economic bloc that rivals North America and East Asia.

There are plenty of signs that U.S. interests in Western Europe are being undermined. It behooves the Bush Administration to pay attention to these signs and portents.