The central question troubling diplomats in West Europe today is how to respond to the sweeping changes taking place east of the tattered Iron Curtain.
The political leader with more answers than most is West Germany's foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a benign-looking and outgoing but controversial statesman who has been damned more often than praised in the United States and Britain.
Genscher, 62, has been foreign minister for 15 years, longer than all the other West European foreign ministers put together.
He is a man in perpetual motion, rarely ever at his desk in Bonn. As a popular story has it, "two Lufthansa jets crossed over the Atlantic, and Genscher was on both." On a recent weekend, he and his wife, Barbara, were in Halle, his hometown in East Germany, for a festival of Handel music. He has made a point of maintaining strong ties with his birthplace, which he left in 1952 to pursue a political career in West Germany, and this is regarded as significant by admirers and critics alike.
Basically, Genscher believes that Western Europe must take advantage of the openings offered by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in order to reduce East-West tensions.
In Paris recently, addressing a human rights conference, he declared: "An undivided Europe without the Iron Curtain, without the Berlin Wall and barbed wire, again appears attainable, and it will come."
Two years ago, Genscher formulated the now-classic response to the overtures from Moscow. "Let's take Gorbachev at his word," he said, adding more recently, "And let's keep him to his word."
He argues forcefully that "the main question for the West is whether it regards the democratization and reform in socialist countries as a danger or as an opportunity it is willing to make use of."
The answer, he says, can only be: "This is a historic opportunity. We must not let it slip by, not idly look on from afar, but must seek to exercise creative influence."
Genscher's attitude has led to his being portrayed as a Pied Piper leading the Western Alliance off to a rash and possibly fatal rendezvous with the irresistible Gorbachev.
Some conservatives in the United States and Britain see him as a naive figure who is willing, in order to bolster his Free Democratic Party, to jeopardize the defensive coherence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Others suggest that Genscher plans eventually to turn West Germany into a neutral state as a step toward unifying the two Germanys.
"Nonsense," one of his aides said recently. "Genscher wants negotiations with the Soviet Union in order to have a treaty that commits the Soviets to arms control, whatever happens to Gorbachev."
Genscher put it this way: "The Cold War is over. The Iron Curtain is becoming brittle, is disintegrating. This is a historic hour in which we are developing our policy. Improved relations between East and West through economic cooperation, through technological cooperation, through cultural exchange and cooperation on environmental matters, must make the path to a better Europe irreversible."
The foreign minister, whose Free Democrats are junior partners in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic-Christian Social coalition, is not alone among European leaders in advocating this course, nor are all his supporters liberals.
Volker Ruehe, one of the more energetic and thoughtful members of the ruling Cristian Democratic Union and a parliamentary specialist in foreign affairs, told an interviewer recently:
"Everyone agrees that there is a need for a change in Western policies. The West must begin to see its security in a broader way--that it is not dependent only on tanks and nuclear weapons.
"There are democratic traditions in Central and Eastern Europe. The people realize the Communist system doesn't deliver. Communism is dead. So our policies should include economic and technical cooperation, geared to speed up change, to enable the Eastern nations to survive."
The dangers the West faces involve unpredictable events in the Soviet satellite countries.
Christoph Bertram, diplomatic correspondent of the weekly Die Zeit and former director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said in an interview:
"Eastern Europe is going to be a mess, a dangerous mess. The real European security problem is not a Soviet attack on Western Europe but things going wrong in Eastern Europe. I think we are seeing the demilitarizing of East-West affairs. That doesn't mean military issues are going to be irrelevant.
"If we want to influence events in Eastern Europe and stabilize the situation, I don't think NATO is the best institution. But I do believe the 12-member European Community could play a powerful role. I think we should offer them access to our big markets, always under certain conditions, bring them into our system."
Several commentators have suggested that the West should offer a course for Eastern managers on how to operate free-market economies. In fact, West Germany already has such a program.
Many believe that new financial credits should be offered, so long as they go into productive endeavors that benefit consumers and create stability.
"Most Eastern European countries are resigned to the hopelessness of any real improvement--and that is dangerous for stability," Bertram said. "So we in the West should provide them with a perspective for a future, a future worth making sacrifices for."
Bertram and others suggest that the East Bloc be offered a sort of Marshall Plan, recalling the U.S. aid program that helped Western Europe rebuild after World War II. Under the Marshall Plan, Bertram said, "the Americans did not say, 'We know what to do for you'; they said, 'We invite you to tell us what you need.'
"The same could be done for the East," he went on, "with the proviso that their requests be properly studied and be genuinely productive to better their economies and their peoples' lot."
As for Genscher's approach, Bertram said: "He is visible, flamboyant, and while I agree with him on many matters of substance, I disagree with his approach. The latest NATO missile crisis was his doing, and his methods were highly immature. He has unnecessarily caused bad feelings in the alliance."
Genscher has been pushing for early talks with Moscow on cutting short-range missiles in Europe, a move opposed by Washington, which, along with Britain, feels such talks would be premature as long as Moscow continues to maintain an overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons.
Not everyone believes in cooperating with the Soviet Union in East Europe. Pierre Gallois, a retired French general and nuclear strategist, thinks that West German moral and economic aid to Moscow will only strengthen Moscow's hold over Eastern Europe.
Interviewed in his office at the International Institute of Geopolitics, a conservative research organization in Paris, Gallois said:
"The Soviet Union will keep its political control over this center of Europe, but it will enrich itself with an Eastern Europe reinforced by the technology of West Germany. I think this is really the strategy Gorbachev has in mind when he pushes Hungary, like Czechoslovakia, to Western economics."
Frederick Bonnart, editor of NATO's Sixteen Nations, an independent military journal, keeps an eye on the East from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Bonnart, a native of Vienna, said:
"We should maintain adequate defenses and, at the same time, always be open toward the Soviet Union. I completely believe in Gorbachev's sincerity."
Genscher--wily, charming, smart and effective but not altogether trusted--summed up his position as follows:
"The West won the Cold War thanks to its firmness, unity, readiness for dialogue and cooperation. It will need the same virtues now, at a time of great opportunity, to win the future--not against the East, but with the East."
Times staff writer Rone Tempest, in Paris, contributed to this story.