The current foreign policies of both the United States and the Soviet Union are still deeply influenced by partition plans created in the early post-World War II period for Germany and Palestine. A divided Germany and the associated separation of Europe into Eastern and Western spheres provide the focal point for two massive military alliances confronting each other, with Moscow and Washington their leaders. In the Middle East the 1947 partition of Palestine, rejected by the Arab world at the time and itself the outgrowth as much of Nazi Germany's policies as those of the British Empire, has become the historical backdrop for today's great power rivalry in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It has been a divided Germany, however, not the Middle East, that has become the ground for the most direct confrontation of Soviet and American military power and the most sensitive point, along with the nuclear balance to which Europe is so closely connected, for global strategic stability. During the detente era Moscow and Washington agreed to various measures designed to stabilize Germany's division.
Division and possible reunification have never been far from the surface of German consciousness since the end of World War II. Konrad Adenauer's commitment to the Western alliance and European unity, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, current discussion of ''the German question'' - reunification - in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party, and Erich Honecker's encouragement of closer ties between East and West Germany all represent a continuing commitment on both sides of the Berlin Wall to being loyal alliance partners and good Germans within the more exemplary , less romantic traditions of German nationalism.
The United States and the Soviet Union have always expressed mixed feelings about German interest in ending the postwar division of Germany. As the recent exchange between President Reagan and the Soviets over Yalta demonstrates, an American commitment against an illegitimate, permanent division of Europe can easily be interpreted, at least by Soviet counterarguments, as Reagan support for German reunification, something unlikely to generate much enthusiasm in large sectors of East and West European opinion. President Reagan's comments on Yalta to Polish-Americans were probably not intended, in the first instance, as advocacy of a united Germany, although he may have unintentionally contributed to this impression. Meanwhile, the Soviets call for nonmilitary steps toward greater European unity but conspicuously exempt the Warsaw Pact from any loss of influence and consistently minimize the legitimacy of key agencies in the Western European Union.
Neither Washington nor Moscow, therefore, seems ready in the foreseeable future to engage in so radical a revisionism as to deny themselves political and military (and economic) access to European alliances based on the division of Germany: East and West Germany remain the keystones of their respective alliance systems, partly by choice and partly by historical circumstance. When some in Washington hear talk of ''the German question'' they become apprehensive. Soviets express unease over East German remonstrances on the importance of inter-German communication (in West Germany more often called inner-German communication). Why, some might ask, should the unsolved German question be important at all, if the Atlantic alliance continues to advance? Indeed, is not the health of the alliance a result of not solving the German question? These objections betray a certain historical myopia and, perhaps, a too narrowly Anglo-Saxon view of Europe.
With some shift of American priorities away from Europe, at least as perceived by our friends and allies, it makes sense for a new generation of German political leaders and intellectuals to reexamine their history for fresh perspectives on German national identity.
In both East and West Germany some are becoming interested in German history again from a specifically German point of view: Germany's long historical dread of being sandwiched between outside powers on a geopolitical chessboard, an anxiety ostensibly surmounted by Bismarck only to reappear again after World War I.
Some Germans today seem increasingly willing to face the dilemma of alliance membership on one side and German unity on the other by boldly stating their preference for an undivided Germany based on an undivided Europe.
For most West German proponents of this choice there seems nothing inconsistent with alliance membership. The situation in East Germany must be more tentative, of course, as recent, public Soviet responses to the Honecker policy make clear. There is also considerable controversy in West Germany about the virtues of reviving any form of German nationalism, even in a pro-Europe image. Yet, what are American and Soviet security interests in Europe when it comes to German division?
As the only superpower with a lengthy history as a European great power, the Soviet Union has no choice but to tailor its European policy to German realities , only some of which Moscow can control. While currently favoring a firm position against West German attempts to pull East Germany closer, the Soviets, like the French, may eventually develop a second, more positive option toward German reunification, given potential economic opportunities that could outweigh possible risks to the Warsaw Pact security system.
Where will American policy in Europe head, if pressed between French, German, and Soviet policies of Europeanizing Europe and making Germany more German? Are recent Reagan administration references to Yalta an indication that it is beginning to take seriously ''the German question'' as well as the imperatives of campaign year 1984? If so, the current US position against an illegitimate division of Europe seems too fixated on past agreements and not focused enough on the kind of free Europe we would like to see emerge in the future. A united Germany based on a united Europe, perhaps desirable in principle for some Germans, still must be compared with the advantages for strategic stability found in the postwar formula of nuclear parity and German division.
The main question for American foreign policy, as far as divided Germany is concerned, is not a correct interpretation of the past, but careful consideration of the future of European and global security.