The first anniversary of Germany's political reunification finds that nation uncomfortably conscious that its destiny projects eastward into lands of turmoil as well as westward where it treasures membership in a democratic alliance.
In its first year of unity, Germany was reluctant to play an active military part in the Persian Gulf conflict outside the NATO theater of operations but was eager to support an independent Slovenia and Croatia as Yugoslavia slipped into civil war. It took the lead in providing economic assistance to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union while pleading with its Western allies to join in to correct the political balance. It trumpeted its devotion to European unity even as it became transfixed with the internal problems of melding the failed East German command economy with prosperous West German capitalism.
What should the United States make of all this? Foremost, that circumstances demand a continuing American presence in Europe if for no other reason than it will give Germany a better chance to adjust to the startling changes associated with reunification and the end of the Cold War.
The Marshall Plan, which German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher calls "the most important U.S. development of the century," stopped the advance of Communism and led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet threat. American-Soviet arms control negotiations have diminished superpower nuclear competition, most recently with President Bush's surprise decision to junk tactical nuclear weapons always loathed by Germans.
Now what Mr. Genscher sees as the third great challenge requires new political structures for all of Europe so that the liberal democracy associated with the Atlantic powers (America, Canada, Britain and France) can spread from its post-war advance base in western Germany into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In our view, this is a lofty vision but one in which U.S. worldwide responsibilities have to be reconciled with Germany's preoccupation with its home continent. We are entering an era when American taxpayers will resist the costly burdens of a large military presence in a Europe that is uniting into a highly competitive trading bloc. The U.S. cannot be expected to be the savior of Eastern Europe as it was of Western Europe.
If there is to be a prime mover, it will be Germany, which already has provided as much capital to the broken economies east of the Elbe as all the other nations of Europe combined, plus the U.S. and Canada. It is the entrepot to which all nations in the former Soviet bloc naturally look.
Even if the U.S. economic-assistance role in Europe is to be but a shadow of what it was during Marshall Plan days, an American presence in the spread of liberal democracy from the Atlantic to the Urals (and beyond?) will be essential. Essential to Germany. Essential to its neighbors. And essential to U.S. interests.