Finding detente in unlikely places
Don't look now, but that Soviet client nagging Moscow to resume detente is none other than rigid, hard-line, orthodox East Germany. The Feb. 21 all-day visit to East Berlin by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt is recognition of this curious fact. Mr. Burt is the highest-ranking American foreign-policy official ever to visit East Berlin.Skip to next paragraph
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It is also tacit American recognition that the West Germans were right to preserve as much detente as possible in Central Europe even during the revived cold war that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As an informed source describes it, Burt was to sound out ''the possibility of continuing East-West dialogue.'' In particular, the aim was to undercut Soviet claims that the new NATO Euromissile deployments have created a crisis situation and to press US proposals for arms control by taking advantage of East European misgivings about new Soviet missiles in East Europe.
East Berlin's new role in promoting detente is so contrary to the conventional wisdom of the past quarter century that some explanation of the background, evidence, motivation, and trade-offs of the East German shift is necessary.
Roughly ever since Stalin's death in 1953 the practice has been that the more an Eastern European country strained at the Soviet leash, the more eager it was for better East-West relations. Detente created a less tense atmosphere in which Romania could get away with defying Soviet foreign policy - or Hungary could experiment with market-type economic reform.
The hard-line East Germans were the conspicuous holdouts to such trends. Once the Soviets themselves opted for detente, in fact, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had to dump East German leader Walter Ulbricht. Ulbricht's replacement, Erich Honecker, went along with the German-German version of detente, called ''Ostpolitik'' in Bonn.
But he was wary lest the resultant liberalizing of East European societies get out of hand and destabilize their governments. In 1980/81 Honecker criticized the rise of Solidarity in Poland more sharply than did any other East European leader (except Czechoslovakia's Gustav Husak).
During the freeze in East-West relations after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, East Berlin did seek to maintain the special German-German relationship. Many Americans interpreted this as a bald attempt to woo West Germany away from the American alliance, however, rather than any East German devotion to overall East-West detente.
When West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt alluded to East German restraint on the Soviet Union (as well as West German restraint on the US) during his ill-timed summit with Honecker on the weekend martial law was imposed in Poland in 1981, this was treated as a bad joke in Washington.
East Germany's willingness to contradict the Soviet line became apparent as NATO began deploying its new missiles at the end of 1983. The Soviets walked out of the Euromissile arms control talks in Geneva, saying they would not return until NATO removed its new missiles.
And Moscow did its best to stimulate a mood of East-West crisis, both verbally and in new ''counterdeployments'' of short-range nuclear missiles in Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
Initially Honecker echoed the Soviet forecast that NATO deployments would usher in a new ''ice age'' in inter-German relations. But even before the Pershing IIs and cruises touched European soil, he was stressing the need for ''limiting the damage'' in East-West relations.