The onrushing tide of German unification and the collapse of Soviet power in East-Central Europe highlight the increasing irrelevance of both the Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact to the evolving European security environment.
For many in Washington, NATO has a talismanic significance. But its days as a useful alliance are numbered. Germany will be the dominant political and economic power in post-Cold War Europe. In the future, the United States will have to compete with Moscow for political influence in Germany instead of commanding it.
Thus, the United States cannot afford politically to appear as if it is blocking German unification.
U.S.-German relations are at their most critical point since the end of World War II. By holding to its current policy of making full NATO membership an ironclad requirement of unification, Washington is making a mistake. Germans could come to view NATO membership as the one big barrier to unification. By imposing difficult preconditions to German unification, Washington could transform this December's elections in West Germany into an emotional referendum on Germany's relations with America and Western Europe. Washington must make it clear that America will never be an obstacle to German aspirations for unity and freedom.
The issue of NATO membership per se could be finessed. The issue of Allied troops in Germany, however, is not to be so easily resolved. Many U.S. officials cling to the quaint notion that the Germans want American nuclear weapons and troops in their country. But the West German Social Democratic Party--which may prevail in December--and the pivotal Free Democratic Party want the nuclear weapons out. Unlike the NATO-oriented Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats (and increasingly the Free Democrats, too) favor a Eurocentric policy that aims to dismantle the postwar security structures and replace them with an all-European security system. Germans are not likely to be happy about the presence of American soldiers if that becomes a sticking point to unification.
There is another good reason for the United States to agree that no foreign troops should remain in a united Germany: Such a pledge would help keep Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in power. February's Central Committee meeting in Moscow demonstrated that Gorbachev could fall victim to a hard-line backlash if it is believed that his foreign policy has failed to protect legitimate Soviet security interests in Europe.
Gorbachev is clearly committed to removing all Soviet forces now stationed in East-Central Europe (including East Germany). Rather than humiliating him, Washington would be wise to give him a graceful means of leaving that region by reviving the idea--first proposed by George F. Kennan in the late 1950s--of mutual military withdrawal of both superpowers from Central Europe. Why should the United States pull the rug from underneath Gorbachev when his policy is moving in a direction fully consistent with American interests?
Historically, the United States has never been a European power; American military involvement in postwar Europe was an anomaly. It was the power vacuum in Central Europe and the advance of Soviet power to the Elbe River after World War II that necessitated the deployment of U.S. forces for the past 40 years. Once the Soviet Army returns to the Soviet Union, there will be little reason for a continued U.S. military presence in Europe--unless, of course, Washington unwisely succumbs to the pressure of those who want to transform NATO from an instrument for containing the Soviet Union into an instrument for containing a united Germany.
No doubt, some will say that an American withdrawal will weaken Washington's political influence in Europe. But that influence has been eroding steadily over the years as America's ability to offer credible defense to Western Europe--and the Europeans' need for protection--diminished. In the future, American influence in Europe will hinge on its economic power--in itself undercut by the huge ($124 billion a year) cost of the NATO commitment--and its diplomatic skill (especially in cultivating a strong relationship with a united Germany).
Serious thought must be given to post-Cold War Europe's architecture and Germany's place in it. A united Germany that belongs to the European Community, is involved in autonomous European defense structures and is embedded in new European institutions, such as an invigorated Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, will not be "neutral" or isolated even if it no longer belongs to NATO. Anchored to the West, such a Germany would also be a bridge to the East and a positive force in the peaceful reuniting of a Europe cut in half by World War II.