The accord made at the conclusion of three days of talks between Leonid Brezhnev and Helmut Schmidt is startling in its simplicity: to conduct Soviet-German mini-talks on arms control paralleling the principal dialogue taking place in Geneva between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is neither Ostpolitik nor Westpolitik. It is Deutschepolitik, a claim to a more significant political role in Europe.
Defining Germany's world role is a continuing source of anguish to its philosophers and its political parties. It is the eternal German question. Konrad Adenauer firmly anchored post- war Germany in the Atlantic Alliance and the European Community. Willy Brandt opened the doors to the East. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Polish drive for pluralism, Germans had it both ways: a comfortable security umbrella in NATO and lucrative trading partners in the Warsaw Pact.
On a more profound level, Germans had found a self-respecting role in Europe. Until the modern era Germany had seen only material crassness to its west and inefficient barbarism to the east. In postwar Europe, Germany became legitimate--above all to itself.
The Germans' right to enjoy both worlds was first challenged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was a clear reluctance to recognize the aggressive nature of the Soviet regime that had accorded Germany a stable atmosphere for good business.
A second challenge came from the Polish drive for pluralism. The ideology of Ostpolitik, which had hoped through trade to loosen cautiously the ties of Soviet satellites to Moscow, was forgotten if not disowned. Instead, German economic and financial interests deplored the lack of stability in the East.
Most recently, Reagan administration rhetoric challenged Germans' fundamental pro-Atlantic loyalty. Both leading parties felt the administration's tough talk had turned around Jimmy Carter's softer approach, which the Germans, and Schmidt in particular, had complained about for four years. But the fallout among the younger generation of Socialists, and also of Christian Democrats, was something else. The CDU leadership knows full well that it could control the peace movement even less than the present leadership.
The leadership of both the SPD and the CDU has recognized that loyalty to the United States was the price of American friendship. But the left wing of the SPD did not. Nor did the 250,000 demonstrators in Bonn in October. Older members of both major parties accept the price paid for the American security umbrella, for "friendship" with France and for easier relationships in Eastern Europe, but a younger generation, ignorant of history, does not.
For the young, Germany dominates Europe with the strongest economy and the most powerful army in NATO. But Germany does not control its own nuclear destiny. It is not anti-Americanism per se. It is an objection to what is perceived as an unequal relationship. Should Soviet missiles be detected making a first strike against Germany, the NATO retaliatory button would not be pushed by Germans. Rather than push it themselves, they prefer to declare Germany out of bounds to the nuclear age.
Until two weeks ago, Schmidt was in a bind. He needed to distance himself from the peace movement proposals or else incur the wrath of the United States. At the same time, for his own political life and that of his party, he had to create a position not identical to that of the United States. Buttressed by President Reagan's plea for arms control just days prior to the Brezhnev visit, he made a thrust in Germany's self-interest: to become a crucial partner to both superpowers.
Schmidt's new Deutschepolitik might be perceived by him as a domestic political imperative. A new German foreign policy primarily shaped by its own self-interest may fulfill young Germans' quest for a more self- respecting place in the universe. But it sends ripples of anxiety to Germany's friends and allies with longer memories.
Germany's free and democratic future belongs to the West. Should it delude itself into believing that it can carve out a position independent of the superpowers, it may have to regauge the depth of its Western friendships. And so may its friends in turn.