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West Germany unmoved by the Soviet Lorelei

Former presidential security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski seems to have bequeathed America one enduring legacy: underlying suspicion of West Germany as an ally.

At a dinner at the West German ambassador's house in Washington three years ago Brzezinski worried aloud about teh possible "self-Finlandization" of West Germany. American columnists, foreign affairs commentators, and editorial writers have been resurrecting that concern ever since. And they are it again.

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Last year, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- and the West Germans' and other Europeans' reluctance to join in all the retaliatory moves proposed by Washington -- Brzezinski's original suspicion grew to become something close to conventional wisdom among some US policy analysts and policymakers.

In particular, Business Week speculated last May that Bonn might well be resuming Germany's role as a central European power oscillating between East and West. Schmidt, the magazine ventured further, might be retreating ot the old 1950s Social Democratic dream of a neutral germany. And now with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visiting Washington to a background of new West German defense spending cuts the whole issue has gained fresh prominence.

It's a simple enough proposition: Wester Germany, if not constantly watched, might sell its soul and Western defenses for a mess of Soviet pottage.

The argument has many variants: The US, after all, has lost its strategic superiority in recent years and must therefore seem to West Germans to e a less reliable defender than heretofore.

The Soviet Union has achieved theater nuclear superiority as well as conventional military superiority in Europe in recent years, the argument continues, and can therefore intimidate West European governments with impunity. Any European war would be fought in Germany, would probably involve nuclear weapons -- and would therefore fry Germany. Under the circumtances, "better red than dead."

Besides, proponents of this view maintain, the Russians can always (1) threaten West Berlin and (2) dangle reunification in front of West Germans panting for a recreation of Bismarck's single German state. The prosperous and complacement West Germans have been softened up by a decade of detente. They are terrified of any cut-off of human contacts between East and West Germans -- and of road access by West Germans to West Berlin. They are by now so dependent on their trade with the East, and so fearful of Soviet might, that they are ripe for appeasement.

Sometimes these assumptions are explicit. Sometimes they are implicit.

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Always, they ignore key facts:

* That it has always been Americans much more than Europeans who have articulated a theory of lessened US defense reliability because of the reduction of American strategic superiority to superpower parity.

* That there is still enormous political deterrence to deliberate East-West war in the mutual possession of nuclear weapons -- quite independent of he missile-for-missile ratio of these weapons.

* That Schmidt himself was the first leader to warn that NATO must redress the Soviet theater nuclear superiority that came with Soviet deployment of the SS-20 mobile missile from 1977 on. And that the pacifist-leaning left wing within Schmidt's Social Democratic Party is a long way from determining Schmidt's foreign policy.

* That West Germany has a very effective conscription and reserve system (in contrast to the US), and supports a density of nuclear weapons on its soil that probably exceeds that of any other country on earth except for East Germany.

* That after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan West Germany (unlike France) immediately agreed not to sell the Soviet Union any high technology the US was placing on embargo. That in the period before the Soviet threat to Poland converted French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing to a born-again hawk, Bonn acted as a necessary middleman between a coy neo-Gaullist Paris and an exasperated Washington.

* That Bonn has steadily practiced an effective and incredibly complex coalition politics to extract common defense and foreign policies out of 10 disparate European Community states.

* That the persistent Soviet threat to Poland has drained the credibility from any Soviet "peace offensive" in the eyes of most West Germans. That Soviet trade is only 1.2 percent of total West German foreign trade, or that tiny Holland has five times as much trade with West Germany as does the giant Soviet Union -- and that nobody deduces from this that Bonn is kowtowing shamelessly to The Hague.

The vision of a West Germany susceptible to the Soviet Lorelei ignores as well the remarkable fact that there is little anti-Americanism in a land the size of Oregon with 200,000 GIs stationed on it for the past three decades. It ignores the way in which the romantic myth of a unified German state has lost its luster amid today's bourgeois prosperity.

Certainly there are differences between the US and its European allies. Opinions vary as to whether, after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Europeans should have abandoned the East-West contacts within Europe that were so laboriously constructed druing detente. It was just such contacts, some Europeans asserted, that so encouraged the Poles on their way to today's extraordinary liberalization.

There are legitimate arguments, pro and con, about whether West Germany is pulling its weight in defense -- 3.4 percent of its GNP, as compared with America's 5 percent, Britain's 4.7 percent, Canada's 1.8 percent. (These figures, however, do not count foreign aid; they don't show that Bonn maintains the best fighting force in Western Europe; that West Germany is the country with the greatest weight of tanks and permanently stationed foreign troops on it.) And these arguments over defense budgeting are sharpened by West Germany's latest juggling of military spending statistics.

There are legitimate disputes, too, about how much "host- nation support" West Germany should pay or how far into the Atlantic the West German Navy should patrol. There are legitimate debates between hawks, doves, and hybrids about the wisest mix of East-West cooperation and confrontation (and armament and arms control) in a Damoclean age.

On all these issues reasonable men can differ.*

But to leap from these differences to suspect West Germany of appeasement, covert neutrality, or a faltering commitment to NATO -- that, in the view from Bonn, is too far- fetched for belief. And it is highly corrosive to alliance relations that must be built on trust.

Clearly the Kremlin hopes to split Europe off from the US (even if it has currently subordinated this goal to the higher priority of maintaining a threat to Poland). But just as clearly, if the Kremlin does no more than psych the US into believing that Europe is splitting off, it will also have accomplished its purpose.

"King Lear-ization," Brzezinski might have dubbed this phe nomenon.

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