US Treads Carefully On German Question

Wary of potential confrontation with USSR, Baker urges `peaceful and stable' progress for East Germany

THE United States is engaged in a delicate balancing act on the subject of the two Germanys. The US goal: slowing the rush of chaos and sentiment which is pushing East and West Germany toward reunification, while outlining realistic ways that German unity could be encouraged over the next five to 10 years.

Though the US is far from the only power involved in this geopolitical process, the opportunity is historic. The question of Germany's power and relations with other European nations has troubled the continent since the 1840s, notes a US diplomat.

``For the first time, we have the chance of resolving this in a peaceful way,'' he says.

Secretary of State James Baker III's visit to Berlin earlier this week exemplified the two-part approach.

First, the encouragement. In his West Berlin speech Mr. Baker spoke of a hope that existing multinational organizations could help manage the peaceful revolutions now sweeping Eastern and Central Europe, including the one-Germany movement. The political role of NATO might be strengthened, for instance, even as the need for its military role lessens. The European Community (EC) could become a force for political unity, attracting Eastern European interest. ``As Europe changes, the instruments for Western cooperation must adapt,'' said Baker.

Next, the cold water. In his surprise visit to East Berlin, Baker expressed support for the reform efforts of new Communist Prime Minister Hans Modrow. Implicit in this endorsement was a hope that the upheaval in East Germany not progress to the point where the government simply collapses, leading to a confrontation between Bonn and Moscow. Baker talked about the importance of East Germany ``moving forward in a peaceful and stable way'' - i.e., no quick reunification.

President Bush, in his Brussels speech following the Malta summit, outlined a number of principles that the US wants to see in the German reunification process:

That it come about as a result of a free vote by both partners.

That it be gradual.

That no exterior German border be changed.

That a unified Germany remain a member of NATO and the EC.

In these principles and Baker's Berlin diplomacy lies the US German policy. Even before the East German government began tottering in the wind of protests this fall, US officials felt Germany would be a major diplomatic challenge. ``Now, at least, we have a concept,'' says one official.

Is it the right concept? It may be more ad hoc than the Bush administration lets on. Baker's East German foray, after all, was apparently planned almost on the spur of the moment.

``We're groping for the right tone,'' says Burton Yale Pines, a Heritage Foundation Europe expert.

The pace of events in Germany, Mr. Pines points out, has many nations concerned. The meeting of the four victorious powers of World War II, held in Berlin over the weekend, was in essence a way of telling the Germanys to calm down, Pines says.

Pines and some other US analysts say that talk of chaos and government collapse in East Germany is realistic. With no longtime opposition movement ready to take power, the result of such a collapse could be explosive.

At Foggy Bottom, the feeling is that this subject is somewhat overblown, with the exception of the East German outrage at revelations of corruption among former Communist party leaders. Even former head of state Egon Krenz faces charges that he helped destroy secret police records.

Another chief worry among some US analysts is that the siren song of reunification will tempt West Germany to draw back somewhat from its current enthusiasm for European, as opposed to German, integration.

A West German-French alliance has been pushing the European Community forward toward its planned 1992 economic integration, over the resistant will of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. But for the West Germans this drive may have been replaced by the sense ``that it is a new game and that they have new options,'' concludes John Yochelson, director of the international business program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bonn may well want to see a slowdown in the pace of economic integration, pending the development of the reunification process. ``We have a very, very uncertain situation with the prospect of a much looser Europe than we might have thought ... six months ago,'' says Mr. Yochelson.

On the other hand, the European Community could be the golden lure bringing the nations of Eastern Europe into closer association with the West. The EC moves slowly, and full membership for Poland, Hungary, or East Germany, even if talks began today, would not occur until after the turn of the century. But in the near term, the EC could develop relatively formal consultative and trade relations with these nations, as it now has with Yugoslavia.

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