Bonn — The $64,000 question now is: Is the new French-German military cooperation going to pull West Germany into "neutralism" and "independence" from the United States? Or is it, in effect, going to reintegrate France into NATO?
French rhetoric argues the former. West German rhetoric hints the latter.
The one thing that is sure is that at the end of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's gala state visit to West Germany July 7 to 11, both sides were stressing that, as Giscard put it, France and West Germany will have "systematic and regular coordination and working out of reactions and proposals" in the future in the realm of defense.
Most diplomatic bets in Bonn would probably ride on the West German hints rather than on French strutting -- and wait to see what Giscard does the day after next May's French election. But probably not even the West Germans know for sure what the morning after the election will bring.
The question is crucial. If the new French-German special military relationship actually masks a rupture between the US and Europe, the results could be disastrous for the West in the post-Afghan period.
If, on the other hand, the special relationship quietly enables NATO to maintain a military balance in Europe without triggering a confrontation with the Soviet Union, then this year's European resistance to America's more hard-line policy proposals will have benefitted the alliance.
For now Giscard -- with the television cameras carrying his every word back to French voters -- revels in the suspicion that he is seducing West Germany away from the US.
"Independent from whom?" asked one reporter at the final press conference, picking up the theme of a strong and independent Europe that Giscard had been preaching all week in West Germany. The French President all but purred. "In Europe we have been independent for 2,000 years, and no one ever asked us from whom," he replied coyly.
That left it to Giscard's host, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, to insert (all week long) that Giscard's Franco-German enthusiasms were meant, of course, in the context of the full European Community and alliance with the US.
This is precisely what Giscard's Gaullist and Communist foes at home fear. The extreme left French newspaper Liberation bristled at Giscard's suggestion of military cooperation with West Germany. The newspaper warned against resuscitating the long dead "European defense force" that could evade the prohibition on German possession of nuclear weapons.
The Gaullists and Communists are especially wary of the military modernization program Giscard announced in late June -- and of the program's star weapon: the neutron-bomb that the US has waived, and that would be useful only on the West German front lines against massed Soviet tanks. Such use would contravene Charles de Gaulle's total reliance on strategic nuclear retaliation -- a policy pursued after the Gaullist-launched development of a French atomic bomb. This policy led to France's pulling out of NATO in the early 1960s.
Giscard has fed his opponents' fears by making a point of saying that defense of West Germany is important for French defense. Similarly, Schmidt -- without specifically mentioning the neutron bomb -- has made a point of approving the French modernization. This modernization, Schmidt told the joint press conference in Bonn, fits in with NATO's decision of last December to deploy new theater nuclear weapons unless Moscow negotiates common ceilings.
The beauty of Giscard's position in all this is that he has never wavered from the rhetoric of French independence. This makes him unassailable either by his domestic opponents or by the Russians.
The Gaullists, a strong wing of the French Socialists (unlike their fellow Social Democrats elsewhere in Western Europe), and even the French Communists, all advocate a powerful domestic military force and do not oppose the neutron bomb or any other weapons on principle.
The Soviets, who mounted a massive campaign against the people-killing, property-saving bomb two years ago, have stayed notably silent on the issue now that France (whose independence Moscow has always praised) is actually going ahead with its development.
Nor has the Soviet Union taken much offense at Giscard and Schmidt's press conference repetition of the EC resolution calling for total Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It is not yet clear just how far French-German defense cooperation might go beyond such existing plans as joint development of a battle tank for the 1990s. One area of cooperation -- in nuclear weapons -- Schmidt has repeatedly ruled out.
The usually well-informed Bonn General Anzeiger journalist Wolf Bell, however , speculates that a financially hard-pressed France might seek some West German funds for its own nuclear arms development. The quid pro quo that Mr. Bell suggests might be equally intriguing: French participation in the "forward defense" of West Germany that is at the heart of NATO's defense strategy.