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Yes--Germany in a Transformed NATO : But Can Gorbachev Be Persuaded to Share the Vision?

Until recently, relaxing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to mean dismantling nuclear armaments. No longer. At this week’s summit meeting, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev must turn to the future, drafting plans for a system of peace in Europe to replace the system of nuclear deterrence of the past. No matter how proudly the two leaders may display new arms treaties in the next few months--or days--peace in Europe now has more to do with the reunited Germany question than with cuts in nuclear and chemical weapons. So this summit is mainly about Germany’s relations with its neighbors to the East and West. It is the thorniest issue imaginable.

The summit would be a total triumph for Bush if he could persuade Gorbachev that a unified Germany belongs in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose sole purpose for more than 40 years was to stand off the Soviet Union. The short version of Gorbachev’s reaction is, “No way.” Not an irrational reaction at all, given how the Soviet people suffered in fighting Germany during World War II.

But Bush needs to make his best pitch anyway. The most compelling argument is that the 19th- and 20th- Century Germany that twice nearly destroyed Europe had no philosophical anchor and no political commitment to a peaceful Continent. Whatever Gorbachev thinks of NATO, it has such a commitment and would provide such an anchor.

But without the United States as a member, it would not have enough clout to counterbalance the behemoth of a united Germany. NATO is a good way to bind the United States to Germany and the rest of Europe. Without some kind of NATO, Washington would be hard put to justify a major presence in a Europe that will merge to become a more challenging economic force in 1992.

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Americans and Germans are not alone in pressing the case for keeping Germany in NATO. Many of NATO’s 16 member nations agree, as do Poland and Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe. For now, this reflects Europe’s collective sense that it needs to keep a close eye on Germany and its military plans more than it needs to keep a weakened Soviet Union at bay.

Bush probably is in a better position to give up points than Gorbachev. Some elements in Moscow accuse Gorbachev of giving away the store. Moscow may have made all the easy concessions it can afford. If NATO were somehow reconfigured, even the Soviet armed forces, some of whose leaders can remember the German siege of Leningrad and leveling of Stalingrad, might see the appeal. After all, they won’t want to gamble that Germany will behave, and their army is perhaps in as bad a shape as the civilian economy, with draftees refusing to show up for service and nearly 200,000 soldiers and their families without decent housing.

Still, until the German question is settled, Gorbachev will not rush to cut his forces and may even balk at withdrawing more Soviet troops from East Germany. The danger in agreeing to disagree for a month or a year is not great. Bush can bide his time. But that time must be used to figure out the shape and mission of the new NATO. Bush already plans to meet this summer with the West European allies to discuss a new role for the alliance, less military and more political. He and Gorbachev should use this summit to make certain that each understands the other’s needs for a role in the European future. If that happened, it would provide a base for Bush’s summer talks on NATO’s new role and make this summit memorable.


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