THE joy is justified. The happiness is welcome. But let's get beyond the gushing over the collapse of the Berlin Wall and down to the serious business. Unless George Bush stops mealy-mouthing meaningless phrases of congratulation, Europe is in for a serious period of instability. The American president must act - and act fast - to assure that the process of East Europe's liberation and Germany's potential reunification doesn't upset the continental balance of power.
The first step is to stabilize the revolutionary situation in East Germany. America's goal is freedom for East Germans. After four decades of suffocating totalitarianism, they deserve free travel and free elections. But support for these freedoms does not mean that we should support a massive outflow of a million or more economic emigrants to West Germany.
It does not mean, either, that we should support a unified Germany, which, with its size and strength, would pose a threat to its neighbors in both the East and West. Germany started two world wars this century. As much as the Germans now may protest that they have been transformed into peaceniks, they should not be put into a position where their power can be misused.
West Germany offers East Germans immediate citizenship on arrival. Any East German crossing into West Berlin can go to a police station and pick up a West German passport, complete with access to West Germany's extensive social-service system.
Bonn offers this benefit because it asserts that Germany is one country. This assertion now has become a good bargaining chip, which should be played to commit the East German government to follow through on its promises. Conditioned on continued free travel and free elections, the West German government should recognize East German citizenship. East Germans still would be free to come and go as they please. But they would no longer would enjoy the automatic right to work and reside in West Germany.
Such a policy would give the East German government a chance to stabilize its situation, and an incentive to reform. It also would avert a premature unification of Germany.
Unfortunately, the United States cannot count on Helmut Kohl to come through with such a dramatic plan. He has the mind of a local politician, not of a sophisticated statesman. He speaks emotionally of the united German fatherland. Renouncing unification, even temporarily, would be bad politics for him.
So Washington should pressure him. If George Bush can muster the courage to use it, he has leverage. Mikhail Gorbachev would love to support such a plan, which would stabilize his key East European ally. The Polish Solidarity-led government, afraid that a reunited Germany would try to renegotiate its contested western borders, also would support it. Even the French, fearful of being overwhelmed by an economically and politically powerful Germany, would lend their weight.
Under such circumstances, Mr. Kohl and his supporters would be forced to temper their ambitions. I am not proposing a return to the cold war. My goal instead is to gain time to renegotiate a solid status quo in Europe. NATO and the Warsaw Pact should be retained, not as aggressive military alliances, but as organizations dedicated to dramatic cuts in the amount of weaponry stationed on German soil.
As nations work together to end the cold war, a new solution should evolve for Germany and Europe. East Germany could join the Common Market, or at least become an associate member, conditional again on its continued reform. Other reforming East Europeans could follow. Subsumed within a federal Europe, a confederated Germany even might become possible without frightening the world.
For George Bush, the key is to move quickly. Until now, he has let the swirling events in Eastern Europe take shape without influencing them. That stand-back-and-salute policy no longer suffices. Nimble Mr. Gorbachev might get fed up with American dithering and go behind our back to strike a deal with Kohl, permitting German reunification in return for neutrality. As in the 19th century and in 1939, Germany and Russia once again could end up carving up Europe, even if only peacefully this time.
America's vital interest is to see a stable, peaceful Europe, not an unstable German-Russian dominated one. That means striking a deal with Gorbachev at the upcoming Malta summit - to keep newly-freed Germany from reuniting too quickly.