The Best of Friends

January 07, 1994|By ELIZABETH POND

Bonn -- Don't look now, but the Germans have actually become America's ''partners in leadership'' in Europe. In no previous administration was this the case.

On his first trip to Europe, President Clinton is meeting separately with Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- not with a British or French leader -- to knock around options for dealing with the looming crises in Ukraine and Russia. In the most important strategy session of the president's first official visit to Europe, Mr. Clinton, his old Oxford roommate, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and other advisers will closet themselves with Mr. Kohl and his counselors at the fringes of the NATO summit in Brussels Monday and Tuesday.

Together, the two leaders will search for the proper balance to reassure the Russians that they will not be ostracized, reassure the Poles that they will not be left to the tender mercies of the Russians, and help find and strengthen any Ukrainian reformers.

President Clinton of course does not use the phrase ''partners in leadership'' coined by a Republican president back in 1989. But he is putting the old rhetoric into practice with a vigor that George Bush himself never fully exercised.

To be sure, Mr. Bush set aside lingering American mistrust of the Germans and supported unification to the hilt in 1990 -- but prominent Bush officials like Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney continued to suspect the worst of Germany and of European integration. It took Mr. Clinton's post-World War II generation of officials to drop this phobia.

President Clinton's new preference is a blow to the French and especially to the British, who were America's premier allies during the 45 years of bipolar division of Germany and Europe.

It is welcome news, however, to the Central Europeans -- the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and neighbors -- who have felt ignored since the end of the Cold War by everyone except the Germans. The Central Europeans hope that Bonn will keep reminding Washington that they are more than just a buffer zone to be subordinated at will to some new American-Russian condominium. They look to the Germans, as the current buzzword has it, as their ''advocate.''

Mr. Clinton's quiet turn to Germany is logical for a president who wants to maintain the U.S. commitment to Europe, but reduce the high costs that commitment entailed over the past half-century. In today's interdependent world the interests of these two great democracies and exporting nations coincide.

Both urgently desire stability in Europe in the wake of the earthquakes that ended the Cold War -- Germany because it sits on the tectonic plate and would be overwhelmed by refugees if more tremors occur, the U.S. because it's much cheaper to stabilize early than to patch up Europe later.

It therefore makes eminent sense for the U.S. and Germany to pool their resources in a new joint ''Ostpolitik.'' The U.S. brings unique superpower prestige to the task; Germany brings incomparable pragmatic savvy.

Thus, while neither country has much spare money at the moment, German and European Union legislation and institutions provide ready models for adaptation by the new democracies and can be easily transmitted by Germans.

Central Europe and the Soviet successor states are next door for tens of thousands of German lawyers, librarians, teachers, investors, managers and technicians. Equally important, Germany is next door for hundreds of thousands of Polish, Latvian and Russian entrepreneurs, civil servants, economists and students.

Beyond such practicalities, there's one further element in the joint American-German policy venture. Both countries combine, in different ways, idealism and pragmatism. In the post-Cold War world, both long to build a durable and fair European and world economic system.

They're pleased with the start they've made with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the GATT world trade agreement, the European Union and the European Economic Area.

Both now want to finish that construction job. They think they can do it best by working together.

Elizabeth Pond is a free-lance foreign correspondent.

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