From the time he was appointed general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev has had three principal goals vis-a`-vis the West: to prevent the resurgence of a German threat in the heart of Europe, to break the Soviet Union out of its technological and economic isolation and to eliminate a major U.S. presence in Europe.
If Gorbachev stays in power, he has a good chance of achieving all three in this season of change and reconfiguration in Europe.
For such success -- if he achieves it -- he will be beholden not only to his own undoubted ability but, above all, to the extraordinary diplomatic skill and activity of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. For their trouble, they will also have achieved a united, sovereign Germany and left the Soviets, the French and the Americans each feeling that the country whose interest most closely coincides with their own is Germany.
It promises to be a stunning achievement for both Gorbachev and Kohl.
Soviet officials have made no secret -- ever -- of their fear of resurgent German power. Of the World War II allies, they have most strongly and consistently resisted moves toward German reunification.
What a surprise then to hear Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze say -- as he did a few months ago -- that the security of Europe is better served by the reunification of Germany than by its division, providing that it take place in the context of an appropriate pan-European settlement.
The European settlement that Gorbachev has had in mind, even before the appearance of his book ''Perestroika,'' is one that would ''overcome'' the division of Europe into blocs and hostile alliances, would integrate the Soviet Union and the East into a common European family, would give the Soviets' hard-pressed economy access to Western technology and financial assistance and, of course, would almost as a byproduct eliminate a significant U.S. role in Europe.
It is not wholly clear at what point Gorbachev realized, as Shevardnadze put it, that ''it is necessary to utilize in depth the potential of a German-Soviet economic cooperation.'' By the time the Soviets understood the Germans could help solve their economic problems, the Germans had already understood there would be no reunification without Soviet support. A marriage of convenience was quickly negotiated, which promises to help both partners achieve their hearts' desires.
Kohl and Genscher made themselves representatives of increased Soviet inclusion in international arenas. In addition, Bonn offered financial assistance highly favorable to Moscow. It guaranteed $3 billion credit for the U.S.S.R. and agreed that East Germany will pay approximately 1.25 billion Deutsche marks ($750 million) toward the cost of supporting 360,000 Soviet troops and their families in East Germany the last six months of 1990, providing Moscow hard currency at a highly subsidized rate.
Now Kohl, with French President Francois Mitterrand, has sponsored a proposal for massive Western aid ($15 billion) in the EC and the G7, and he is working on proposals to make NATO less objectionable to the Soviet Union and on the construction of the Soviets' favorite pan-European institution, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. On July 15 Kohl will travel to Moscow to report to Gorbachev on progress so far and to appeal for the Soviets to drop opposition to German membership in NATO -- which the United States and Western Europeans want as their price for supporting German reunification, and which the Germans themselves presumably desire.
But the Soviets' price is likely to be high, and some of its terms may be ultimately incompatible with meaningful German membership in a meaningful NATO. The last Shevardnadze proposal left Soviet troops in Germany for five years, mainly at German expense.
To assist Gorbachev in Europe Kohl has needed and gotten French support. Mitterrand has been a willing and active participant in the Gorbachev-Kohl policy. His own quasi-Gaullist vision of a stable Europe without the blocs coincides with Gorbachev's in some crucial ways. They also share a barely articulated desire to reduce the role of the United States and NATO in Europe and to enhance the CSCE. This is the reason Mitterrand is just now opposing American efforts to transform and broaden NATO's mission and is working to prevent NATO from taking a position on the structure of the CSCE.
Like Gorbachev, Mitterrand looks toward a Europe for the Europeans.
The desired American contribution to the Gorbachev-Kohl design is now clear: it is for economic aid and a ''flexible'' policy toward NATO. Where the Bush administration will come out is not yet clear. My own sense is that a meaningful long-term role for NATO will not survive the current reconfiguration of Europe -- if present trends in the Soviet Union continue -- and that Bush cannot join Kohl and Mitterrand in a major financial aid program -- even if he should desire to do so -- not when the Soviets are still spending nearly 20 percent of their GNP on a military budget, sending at least $5 billion a year to Cuba and more to Angola, Afghanistan, Mozambique, et al.; not when Bush proposed to raise American taxes; not when Japan flatly refused to join an aid consortium.
But the ''no's'' of Japan and the United States will not matter that much to the emergence of the new Europe, which is once again absorbed with itself and is creating its own complex correlations of power. And America is free to go home.