Germany relearns how to run a sovereign power

September 30, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- A year after Germany unified and began to emerge as Europe's next big power, it is still trying to figure out how to play its role on the European and world stage.

While the country has shown itself capable of independent action, it has also faltered badly over the past year as it looks for its bearings in post-Cold War Europe.

The sheer size and economic clout of the newly united nation makes it inevitably an important player, potentially the most important. It is the largest country in Europe and the world's third largest economic power.

But setting a course in foreign affairs is complicated by internal and external anxieties about flexing muscle in ways that would evoke Germany's expansionist past. In a way, the nation's course was easier before unification when West Germany had limited sovereignty and was still officially occupied by the Western victors of World War II -- Britain, France and the United States -- and East Germany was occupied by the Soviet Union, which had total control over the country's foreign policy.

"German diplomacy has lost its guideposts. Finding a new way will take time, but that is something that we don't have a lot of," observes Christoph Bertram, diplomatic correspondent for the respected weekly Die Zeit.

Unification and the agreement of the World War II allied powers to give up their rights of occupation restored full sovereignty to Germany, but German foreign policy is still based on a consensus that includes three main objectives:

* Continuing West Germany's orientation toward the United States and the West.

* Working for the integration of Europe, embracing Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

* Stabilizing the situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

These were essentially West Germany's foreign policy priorities before last year's unification. But its regained sovereignty and a population that now numbers nearly 80 million has thrust new expectations on Germany.

Regaining its sovereignty has allowed Germany to be more forceful in dealing with countries that have troops on its territories. Requests for forces to limit unpopular low-level flying maneuvers used to fall on deaf ears but now have to be heeded.

"Of course West Germany was an ally of the West and not occupied, but whenever there was a dispute this was always the unspoken last word: We legally occupy you," said Michael Staack of the Institute for International Politics and Regional Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

Despite Germany's ability to act alone, policy-makers realize that difficulties persist.

"There is still very much the feeling that it is impossible to go it alone. Although Germany is united and stronger, it has to work within Europe to be successful," Mr. Staack said.

Germany recently threatened to recognize the independence of the Yugoslav republic of Croatia, for example, but later was forced to abandon this tactic when it was rejected by most other European countries, Mr. Bertram said.

One reason that a unified Germany must cooperate is that, powerful as it is, it cannot afford to solve all the problems itself, says Werner Weidenfeld, a professor at the University of Mainz and coordinator of the federal government's program for German-U.S. cooperation.

Currently, Germany pays 56 percent of Western aid to the Soviet Union and 32 percent of aid to Eastern Europe. Although both areas need more, the German government realizes that it has little more to offer and will try to push its allies to give more, Mr. Weidenfeld said.

While it tries to work out its role in foreign affairs, the country realizes it now needs a foreign policy that does not seem indecisive.

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's slow reaction to the Persian Gulf war, for example, angered many domestic critics. The government eventually contributed weapons and money to the U.S.-led coalition, but it was seen at home and abroad as having failed to do anything significant.

Although some parts of Germany's foreign policy are being hotly debated, there is relatively little controversy over Mr. Genscher himself. Some critics -- especially in Washington -- used to take swipes at him for his early faith in Soviet perestroika and glasnost, but his policies of detente were popular at home, and he has remained the country's most popular politician for years.

Having served in the post for 17 years, Mr. Genscher is also one of the world's most experienced and influential foreign ministers. His international prominence and respect were seen as a factor in enabling Germany to reunite with so little opposition from its neighbors. Now he is helping to give the new country a solid, Western orientation.

But the sense persists that no matter how influential the foreign minister may be, the country's policy will seem weak until its military role is clarified.

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