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US and West Germany: persuading a friend to change

BECAUSE of superpower politics, the leadership of the Federal Republic of Germany feels squeezed these days. On one side, the United States is strongly pressing West Germany to increase its defense spending, and some in Congress threaten a reduction of US troop levels if West Germany does not. On the other side, the Soviet Union is holding ties with East Germany hostage to Moscow's view of East-West relations and to proper West German behavior on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force deployment and other NATO issues. If West Germany did everything the Americans asked, most in the Federal Republic believe they would pay a price in reduced ties with East Germany and more difficult relations with Moscow. West Germans distinctly feel that they are the ones who suffer most when the superpowers do not get along. This is Bonn's predicament.

West Germany has been at the heart of American foreign policy toward Europe since the end of World War II. An economically strong West Germany with deep and close ties to the US has been, and remains, a critical foreign policy objective supported by both the Congress and the vast majority of Americans.

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The trouble with US policy toward West Germany today is that it could lead, over time, to the very results we have tried so hard to prevent. If we are not careful, we may someday find the Federal Republic frustrated with NATO, stung by criticism from the US, and ready to search for a way to make its peace with the Soviet Union. Although West Germany might not formally leave NATO, any major steps West Germany might take toward Moscow outside the alliance framework would undermine both NATO and American policy goals in Western Europe.

Thus, the US has a direct role in helping to determine what might happen in West Germany. The issue of debate between us has been ``burdensharing,'' the amount of resources which each member of the NATO alliance contributes to the Western defense. There can be no question that the US is today contributing more than its fair share, that the allies need to be persuaded to do more, and that if they do not the view of Americans will shift, over time, against maintaining high levels of support for Europe's defense.

This is the clear message in the Nunn-Roth amendment in Congress which seeks to increase European defense outlays in specific conventional areas, and mandates a cut in US troop levels in Europe if the allies do not meet these goals. The amendment is proposed by strong supporters of NATO who are rightly worried over the state of Western conventional defenses.

The focus of this debate is on the Federal Republic because most US troops in Europe are located there. Indeed, West Germans wonder at whom the amendment is directed other than West Germany. In 1984, real growth in West German defense spending will be roughly 1.2 percent, and in 1985 a hoped-for 2.2 percent. West Germany is budgeting greater increases in defense spending than in any other area, and its overall performance is better than most of our allies, almost all of whom have weak economies and have hard-pressed budgets like our own. Still, it is a far cry from the 3 percent real growth commitment the allies made in 1978, or the 5 percent real growth in defense spending we achieved this year.

While the goals of the Nunn-Roth amendment are laudable, and the intent of its sponsors is to strengthen NATO, its tactics are wrong. If enacted, it would be a setback to US relations with West Germany, jeopardizing one of our most durable foreign policy successes of the postwar period.

This amendment is no way to treat a friend who is our partner in an alliance. It is one thing to seek to persuade a partner in private discussions to do something; it is another to bully him through open threats. We simply cannot dictate through legislation what a friend must do without causing a fundamental change in the relationship. To pass such provisions would be to change the NATO partnership into an association with second-class members, and it would discredit US leadership.

By putting so much pressure on the West German government and confronting it publicly, we would isolate it within NATO, and give strength to those forces in West German society who question the Western military alliance. As such, this provision would be counterproductive and would strengthen neutralism in West Germany. Likewise, any government that went along with us would be seen as a US surrogate by its own people. Too often in the process of trying to force changes in the policies of another country we unleash forces which prevent the attainment of the very goals we seek.

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Regardless of the intent of its sponsors, the Nunn-Roth amendment is viewed in West Germany as a step which will weaken the Federal Republic's conventional defenses, lessen deterrence, lower the nuclear threshold, and -- in short -- weaken the alliance. West Germany simply does not have the manpower to replace US troops which might be withdrawn. Given the decline in the birthrate in West Germany, the focus of West German policy now is on maintaining current force levels. This will soon require unpopular actions, such as extending the length of service for conscripts. West Germany cannot permanently increase the size of its forces, and many in Europe for historic reasons would not want it to do so anyway.

The timing of this amendment is bad. West Germany stood firm this past year on the implementation of the 1979 decision on missile deployments. This was no small feat given the deep divisions in West Germany on the issue. To follow this effort with an initiative which calls into question the Federal Republic's defense commitments only breeds distrust across the Atlantic.

The amendment is also meddlesome. It details specific actions the allies must take -- such as providing hardened shelters for tactical aircraft -- rather than recognizing a wider range of steps which can help strengthen the alliance's defenses.

Finally, the amendment takes a meat-cleaver approach. West Germany's defense effort today ranks high in the alliance. With US encouragement, it is doing more -- as it should. But the effect of this amendment would be to damage those in the alliance who are doing more for the common defense effort, not those who are doing less.

It is certainly difficult to defend the scale of the US military commitment in Europe. Few Americans can understand why some 350,000 US troops are needed in Europe nearly 40 years after World War II and why 100,000, for example, could not do the same job in peacetime as well.

That commitment is one of the pillars of US foreign policy, and it ought to be altered only through the closest consultation with, and agreement of, our allies. Europe has received the message: The allies had better do more for the common defense or the alliance will erode and American soldiers will come home. We now have their attention, but we should now resist hitting them over the head.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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