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NATO and the `Russo-German Question'

TWO major political question marks hang over NATO - and they are closely related. Is Soviet reform authentic enough that it will lead to a more stable, assured peace in Europe? And will West Germany remain a strong, reliable partner in NATO? Why are the two questions related? Because the more the Soviet Union sheds the image of an aggressive and potential foe of the West, the larger will loom the whole ``German question.'' The relationship is so fixed in history and the political life of Europe that it might even be called the ``Russo-German question.''

The division of Germany is a legacy of World War II. The war has never been fully settled under international law. The USSR has not drawn the final line under the war. The legal status of Berlin is but one example. The political status of all of Eastern Europe illustrates the same point.

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But Germany is the divided nation, so it follows that the emergence of a truly friendlier USSR - if this happens - will raise the ``German question.'' As a matter of fact, the West German Constitution views the political entity it describes as a provisional one, existing in an interim condition until the two parts are peacefully united.

Not that West Germans (and certainly not East Germans) are talking about reunification. That's just not in the current political cards. But the topic remains persistently latent.

The hope in Moscow is that Bonn will bend to Moscow's d'etente. The fear in the West is that Bonn would abandon its Western leanings and NATO obligations for the prize of reunification.

This fear tends to distort debate about a rather technical point in NATO's dealings with the Warsaw Pact. For weeks, Bonn and Washington squabbled over NATO's short-range nuclear missiles, with West Germany pushing for early talks leading to the elimination of the weapons.

That seems to have been sorted out in Brussels this week. But the concern will exist as long as nuclear weapons remain in Europe. Pressure will remain on West Germany - where any ``limited'' nuclear war would be fought - to keep the larger picture in mind.

The tension is so high on this technical negotiating point precisely because of the larger drama of the Russo-German question. History bites hard and for a long time, and motives are hard to judge.

But laymen, pundits, experts, and even prophets should all see at least one thing if they are to start to come up with an accurate sense of how the Soviet-German picture is changing. They must realize that Mr. Gorbachev's reform would not be moving so broadly and quickly, in parts of Eastern Europe in particular, if Europeans as a whole were not already convinced that West Germany has exhibited an exemplary reform over the past decades.

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That is, the massive and multifarious change that brings a more stable peace to Europe must come from both Germany and the USSR.

Only Europeans can fully understand this symbiotic relationship. Present political progress in Europe is as interrelated as is the history of Europe. One bad apple, in the past as in the present, spoils the whole pie. But when public opinion senses all good apples, the public bakery gets cooking.

Europeans see a West Germany at peace with and prospering with France. They see a West Germany that is willing to see Britain and other European nations included in a circle of growing cooperation at all levels of government. Western Europeans - and Russians - see West Germany as a skilled builder of economic and political bridges to the East. And could a secure peace come in any other way? Americans in particular can learn a lot more about seeing West Germans through the eyes of other Europeans, and perhaps even through the eyes of Russians.

West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has said: ``If it is true that East and West need a bridge of trust, then we Germans must build its main support.''

The statement is ripe with political morality and deserves some quiet thought and analysis, a little less cynicism than it has so far drawn.

Americans and West Germans see a Gorbachev they like. Regarding stated Soviet intentions, Washington and Bonn should be neither rigid nor naive. For now, NATO seems to have worked out the technical negotiating point on short-range nuclear weapons. But behind it, the larger Russo-German question will remain.

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