AS the 20th century approaches its final decade, we can conclude that Germany has caused more suffering and misery than any other country. Even with its partition at the end of World War II, Germany continues to be troublesome: It is simultaneously symbol, cause, and consequence of the cold war and the unnatural division of Europe. The Federal Republic's entry into NATO, 36 years ago, even served as the immediate stimulus for the formation of the Warsaw Pact. Today, NATO itself is fractionated by German skittishness over nuclear weapons. This is supposed to be a time of ``new thinking.'' So why not apply some to an old problem; namely, Germany? Now that many old shibboleths are being reconsidered - strategic doctrine, the balance of conventional forces, the very nature of the East-West relationship - maybe it's time for Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union to think about German reunification.
The Soviets, we are told, wouldn't consider it, given their historical experience of fighting two disastrous wars this century with a united and aggressive Germany. After France had fought two similar wars - the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, Clemenceau noted he was so fond of Germany that he insisted that there be many of them. But this is precisely why reunification offers such hope. Because to succeed, it would have to be politically neutral and demilitarized, or at least have drastically reduced military forces. German reunification combined with neutrality could even provide the impetus for the ultimate demilitarization of Europe itself.
The Soviets would be facing a united Germany once again. But they would gain as well, since the military and economic strength of West German - which would be lost to NATO - greatly exceeds that of East Germany, which would similarly be lost to the Warsaw Pact. But assuming that a newly united Germany was nonaligned and guaranteed to be militarily nonthreatening, the USSR on balance would be gaining.
As to Germans themselves, there is no questioning their desire for reunification; it has been an explicit goal of essentially every postwar government, enshrined even in the (West) German Constitution.
NATO would seem to be the big loser. West Germany is NATO's continental mainstay, an economic giant and supplier of more troops than any other member state. But NATO existed from 1949 until 1955, when West Germany joined, and it could certainly persist after the Germans left. At the same time, the necessity of NATO itself need not be taken as axiomatic. After all, NATO was founded for two reasons: to provide an umbrella of assurance under which the postwar reconstruction of Western Europe could proceed, and to establish a cooperative defensive military alliance. Clearly, the first goal has been achieved. Perhaps the second will be made obsolete as the beneficial effects of German reunification are felt.
A glance at the map of Europe makes this clear. NATO (and Warsaw Pact) scenarios of surprise attack by the other side inevitably focus on assaults across the German Plain. By contrast, no one seriously contemplates attacks through the neutrals: Yugoslavia, Austria/Switzerland, or Finland/Sweden. A united and neutralized Germany would create a wide and imposing demilitarized zone, behind which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact could breathe much more easily.
Presumably the political and economic system of a new German state would be determined by Germans themselves. But whatever they choose - from full-fledged Maoist communism to rampant laissez faire capitalism - what difference would it make so long as Germany ceased to be a cold-war provocation? Regarding the German military, both the Bundeswehr and its East German equivalent would have to be replaced with forces adequate only for border patrol and internal security. European theorists - German, most especially - have become increasingly interested in the prospects for nonprovocative defense, or ``structural incapacity for attack'' (strukturelle Nichtangriffsfahigkeit). A nonaligned, unified Germany, which of necessity must be nonprovocative, would be the ideal subject for such a revolution in military force structuring.
Would the Germans be willing to give up the benefits of maintaining military forces as now constituted? A better question is why Germany should be able to transcend the East-West conflict? Moreover, why should it be exempted from the debilitating effects of maintaining a military economy, a burden imposed so onerously on the rest of us? Perhaps the answer lies in the need to look creatively toward the future. There would be great poetic justice if Germany were to become the world's showcase for the benefits of demilitarization.