IT was a time of great hope and uncertainty in Eastern Europe, a time when fledgling democracies sought to overcome the onslaught of domestic and regional adversities. In Yugoslavia, conflicts intensified between Croatians and Serbians. Concerns increased in Poland over German territorial claims. Government officials lashed out against growing fascism in Germany. Poland sought to reclaim territories annexed by the Soviet Union. The region was on the verge of economic collapse. Fractional strife spread through the Baltic states. Fears of German economic and military rebirth intensified. Tensions rose over the treatment of ethnic minorities in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
These are among the factors that fed the flames of hostilities prior to World War II. Remarkably, the same factors today roil the European continent.
The prospects for a democratic and independent Eastern Europe is something to celebrate. But behind the euphoria reside questions about the durability of the reform movements under way in the region. Renewed interregional disputes, the assault on perestroika, the continued existence of authoritarian structures, and the German question all pose serious challenges for the United States and our NATO allies.
The major challenge is to resist the temptation unilaterally to reduce our military presence in Europe to reap the rewards of a ``peace dividend.'' Margaret Thatcher has said that if there had been a strong NATO in the late 1930s, we could have prevented World War II.
At present, NATO and the Warsaw Pact play a vital role in guaranteeing regional security and stability. Developing the institutions capable of fulfilling this role outside of a military framework may take several years at best. Until a European collective security agreement can be reached, a strong American presence is needed to help the seeds of democratic revolution take root.
The conflicts leading up to World War II were never resolved by the postwar powers. There was no general peace conference. Disputes over boundaries were settled in piecemeal fashion. America's priority was to rebuild the economic infrastructure of Western Europe. Soviet attention was focused on the security of its borders and the consolidation of the world communist movement.
Interregional conflicts were merely suppressed by the dominance of Soviet military and American economic might. But now that the window of self-determination has come ajar, many of these same issues have reemerged, threatening to undermine regional stability.
Adding to this threat to regional stability is the economic and political environment in the Soviet Union. Secessionist demands in the Baltics, the southern Republics, and Moldavia could lead to a backlash by Russian hard-liners.
Fueling the threat of backlash is the sorry state of the Soviet economy. The Soviet Union can no longer count on Eastern Europe as a place to dump shabby products and extract resources for rubles that are worthless in the world market. Some 80 percent of Eastern Europe's trade is with the USSR, but that is about to change. How long can Gorbachev maintain control in the face of serious economic and political distress?
Lurking behind the scene in Eastern Europe is an authoritarian infrastructure trying desperately to regain its foothold on power, particularly in East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. The new leaders in Eastern Europe acknowledge that a return to communism is not a serious threat. But as Solidarity leader Bronislaw Geremek told me, if economic conditions do not improve, ``we could see a return to an authoritarian regime with the use of the army.''
Another destabilizing factor is the German question. The pace of German unification greatly concerns regional leaders. Time has not diminished the terrible memories in countries occupied by Germany during World War II.
The fear of Germany's regaining economic and military dominance is most evident in Poland, where Warsaw and its population was completely annihilated by the Third Reich. In the words of one Polish official, ``We like Germany so much, we prefer to have two of them.''
Certainly, a direct military threat from the Warsaw Pact is substantially diminished. The Brezhnev Doctrine has been superseded by the ability of member states to choose their own political and economic destiny. The Soviet Union is incapable of enforcing ideological doctrine and economic cooperation.
This is a time of great hope and optimism. It is not a time for unilateral or uncoordinated withdrawal from the European continent. The United States must not diminish its military presence in Europe until mutual security and confidence-building arrangements are put in place, and the territorial status quo is confirmed by all European nations. Until then, a strong, determined, and unified Western response is the best way to ensure the irreversibility of the historic reforms taking place in Eastern Europe.