Germans sway on tightrope between East and West

"The dialogue with the East must continue," says West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. "Europe's security cannot be guaranteed without the United States," says his Foreign Minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher.

Six weeks after the Soviet Union's Christmas attack on Afghanistan. West German leaders are stil maneuvering between the horns of a tormenting dilemna: how to preserve a European niche for detente without affronting their American ally.

Bonn's tightrope act now is caught in cross-buffeting winds. Paralleling American pressure, the Soviet Union has subtly tightened the screws on Bonn.

Following orders from the Kremlin, East Germany canceled the East German-West German summit meeting between Mr. Schmidt and East German party chief Erich Honecker scheduled for the end of February.

Foreign Minister Genscher's trip to Czechoslovakia was suddenly put off by the Prague government, and his Hungarian counterpart, Frigyes Puja, regretfully let it be known that he would not travel to Bonn this week as planned.

Indirect as these reprisals were, they spelled out a clear warning to the West Germans: If you fall in behind the Americans, you will have to pay the price of deteriorating relations. In the same breath, Moscow was telling its East European clients that they cannot have their own little cozy detente with key Western powers while their patron is facing the global chill all by itself.

Ironically, both superpowers now pursue symmetrical policies. Both are telling their clients and allies that conflict cannot be compartmentalized, that tension is indivisible.

Or as Henry Kissinger put it in a speech at the Swiss ski resort of Davos last week: "Europe cannot assume in this moment of danger that it wil enjoy the monopoly of conciliation while the United States assumes the monopoly of defense." Presumably, similar words of warning spoken in Russian have been heard lately in East European capitals.

Just like their East European opposites, Bonn politicians were also forced into cutting back on diplomatic tourism. West German Economics Minister Otto Graf Lambsdorff postponed his visit to Poland, white Labor Minister Herbert Ehrenberg canceled his trip to Moscow. Whether Helmut Schmidt will still meet with Soviet party chief Leonid Bezhnev later this year is an open question.

But essentially, West Germany is still trying its hardest to evade the mounting conflict between detente and defense, even as th e cold-war lines of the 1980s are redrawn across the European map.

Bonn's prescription for moving out of harm's way is the "division of labor" between NATO allies. While the United States has embarked on a course of neo-containment in south Asia, West Germany wants to pitch in closer to home.

In practice this means that Bonn will do nothing that might draw the country into a military confrontation. Mr. Schmidt is extremely reluctant to increase the WEst German defense budget. Asked whether he foresaw a need for enhance airlift capabilities, the Chancellor merely replied: "Our armed forces have plenty of airlift capabilities for the purposes laid down by the alliance." Clearly, there will be no German soldiers in the Gulf.

There are also good domestic reasons why Helmut Schmidt is steering such a fine course between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although Jimmy Carter's electoral fortunes have soared in the wake of his "get tough" pronouncements, Mr. Schmidt's fate is closely tied to a policy of conciliation in Europe. After all, his Social Democratic Party won tenure under Willy Brandt in 1969 as the party of ostpolitik and detente. In this fall's national election, Mr. Schmidt will be facing Bavarian strongman Franz-Josef Strauss, the candidate of the conservatives, who has always presented himself as the savior of the fatherland in times of trouble.

Helmut Schmidt knows only too well that Mr. Strauss might suddenly look very attractive to the electorate if the political temperature in Europe approaches the freezing point.

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