West Germany: a new 'power' among the superpowers

Let it be noted, for it is of the highest importance, that during this past week the country which stood at the center of the world stage was not a superpower, not the United States or the Soviet Union, not China, not India - but West Germany.

It did not happen because the Germans sought the central position, or claimed it. Events have pushed them to the center where their importance to both the superpowers has given them an unusual ability to influence those two superpowers.

And it is of equally high importance that the West Germans are using that influence in the direction of trying to reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow and of trying to bring the two of them to another effort to slow the arms race and to achieve new limits on those weapons which could too easily destroy the human race.

The main action of the week, and possibly of the decade, took place in Bonn where West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt graciously received the master of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev.

This meeting was the reverse of previous meetings between the Soviet and West German leaders since World War II. In those earlier meetings the German was the supplicant. The Soviet was the overlord of a mighty empire able to grant or withhold concessions to the lesser Germans. This time Mr. Brezhnev wanted more from the West German Chancellor than the Chancellor wanted from Moscow.

The very act of receiving Mr. Brezhnev was in itself a favor, almost a condescension. The Soviets have been in disrepute among the nations for their act of invading and brutalizing Afghanistan. This is the first time since that invasion, nearly two years ago, that anyone in the outside world has been willing to have Mr. Brezhnev come visiting. It was his first cautious readmittance to the councils of the nations.

He came also because he needs German help in understanding and in communicating with Washington and because the West German Chancellor happens today to have more influence in Washington than any one other head of government the world around.

The proof of the Chancellor's influence with Washington lies in the fact that during the week before Mr. Brezhnev's arrival in the West German capital, the new President of the United States had made his first really important foreign policy speech and included in it, another first, an offer to resume negotiations over strategic weapons with the Soviets.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan it has been a Washington rule that the Soviets must withdraw from that country as a precondition to renewal of strategic weapons talks. The SALT II treaty was left unratified in part because of the invasion. Ronald Reagan's campaign and earlier presidential remarks implied the linkage between Afghanistan and SALT talks.

Mr. Reagan uncoupled that connection in his foreign policy speech. SALT talks , under the new name of START (strategic arms reduction talks), may now go forward as a sequel to the negotiations opening Nov. 30 in Geneva on possible limits on theater weapons in Europe. If the first makes progress, it would be logical to move on to the broader stage. The American President said they could.

He said so in advance of the Brezhnev visit to Bonn because the future of the NATO alliance was in danger. Mr. Reagan's previous hard line toward the Soviets had unsettled the alliance. The main visible evidence of this has been the string of massive antinuclear and partly anti-American demonstrations in the main capitals of Western Europe. One of the biggest of those demonstrations was in Bonn itself. Some West Europeans have been in incipient rebellion against the militaristic tone of the American President.

The time had come when President Reagan in Washington had to turn toward negotiating with the Soviets, or risk seriously eroding the NATO alliance which has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II, and still is. In effect, the West German Chancellor helped revive drooping alliance unity by persuading the American President to talk to the Soviets.

Helmut Schmidt had not sought the role of middleman between the superpowers. History has cast him in that role. He could not escape it. He must play it out. And so far, he has played it very well. He and his country remain resolutely committed to the West, but he has brought the American President to recognize the urgency and importance to the United States of being willing to resume negotiations with Moscow. He has in turn brought Leonid Brezhnev to the point of making his own preliminary arms limitation proposals.

Neither Mr. Reagan's nor Mr. Brezhnev's opening proposals are in themselves to be taken seriously. They are opening bids in a delicate game of diplomacy which will probably go on for at least two or three years. They are extreme and extravagant opening bids. Diplomacy is like that.

The West German Chancellor acts both as the stage director and as the master of ceremonies as this fateful game opens. He has brought the two main parties together. He himself is the reason Mr. Reagan is willing to come to the conference table. He is probably the main reason the Soviet armies have not invaded Poland. The Soviets need the goodwill of West Germany today too much to spoil it by doing in Poland what they did in Afghanistan.

So this past week we have found the German Chancellor at the center of the world scene. He is bringing the superpowers together because neither dares to risk his disapproval.

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