As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union mount, it is bizarre to be hearing calls to pull our troops out of Europe. Even senior American government officials have been hinting recently that we might punish wavering allies in this fashion.
Some editorialists go further, saying our allies do not deserve our protection if they do not increase their defense budgets as we do, adopt our boycotts against Iran and Russia, back to the hilt NATO decisions on deploying new nuclear weapons and, most crucially, line up behind us to punish the Polish and Soviet governments for trying to crush Solidarity.
But brandishing our ultimate leverage may unhinge a good deal more than we imagine. The security advantages of having 350,000 troops in Europe are as great and obvious today as ever. The troops, equipment, bases and commands there also remain essential to military objectives in the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Persian Gulf. There is a deeper political aspect, too.
NATO was conceived to provide security not only against a Russia that is aggressive but also against a Germany that once was aggressive in the past. Together with the European Economic Community, the Alliance constitutes a framework within which German talents and energies turn to constructive and cooperative use.
At the behest of the West European nations that were victims of the Third Reich, the United States three decades ago exacted a price from the Germans when they joined NATO--a price they willingly paid and still pay. German sovereignty is uniquely limited: Germany renounced having its own army and placed the Bundeswehr under NATO--American--command. It also forswore production and ownership of atomic weapons. Americans must decide whether to fire the 6,000 nuclear weapons now on German soil.
The Germans--all our NATO allies, in fact --exacted a corresponding price from us, of course. American soldiers on the ground, and in sufficient numbers to make it inconceivable that we would ever sacrifice them, are what makes the alliance credible to the Germans and what makes the limitations on their sovereignty acceptable to them.
Start to remove U.S. troops and to degrade NATO and we invite the Germans to consider nationalism, neutralism and collusion with Russia.
This follows because Germany is unique among our allies in one other crucial way: the nation is divided among two states. Any government--Christian Democratic no less than Social Democratic--is obliged constitutionally to pursue reunification and politically to keep open the door to every feasible reassociation with the German Democratic Republic.
Inter-German relations are therefore more important in Bonn than Poland is, as Chancellor Helmut Schmidt demonstrated in his reaction to the crackdown on Solidarity that took place during his visit in East Germany two weeks ago. A Soviet takeover in Warsaw --as distinct from a Polish military dictatorship there--would lead inevitably to a tightening of the Soviet grip on the GDR. Russia's ultimate leverage with Bonn lies in its power to alter East German policies and positions.
If we compel the Germans to rethink their allegiances, the reconsideration will be agonizing and the outcome uncertain. A German debate on the Westbindung (links to the West) and Wiedervereinigung (reunification) would stir deep emotions and fears throughout Europe. Neutralism and accommodation with Russia might be live options.
An unattached Germany would represent a monumental victory for the Kremlin, compared to which the "losses" of Ethiopia, South Yemen, Afghanistan and Angola that so exercise us fade into insignificance.
Pique and petulance about allies who are stronger but also less deferential than they used to be should not tempt us into threats that could shatter a structure that serves our defense and the peace of Europe in many ways, including some that we seem to have forgotten.