PARIS -- Mikhail Gorbachev's acceptance of German unification in NATO is good news, not only for the West but also for the Soviet leader. He has finally reached a bottom line from which he can begin to rebuild Soviet influence in Europe with German help.
But is that last bit good news for Americans? You do not have to be an Old Thinker to feel uneasy about the West German chancellor sitting beside the Soviet president in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains and casually disclosing that U.S., British and French troops will leave Berlin when the last Soviet troops withdraw from the eastern sector of reunited Germany.
The American secretary of state was aloft in a jetliner when Helmut Kohl unveiled to reporters the German decision on how and when the U.S. contingent stationed in Berlin since 1945 would leave. James A. Baker III, keen supporter of the full-speed-ahead approach on German unification, landed here and could only enthuse about a U.S. withdrawal from Berlin and the rest of the Kohl-Gorbachev deal.
Kohl also presented his American allies with another fait accompli by agreeing with Gorbachev on a permanent denuclearization of East German territory, a position that was not agreed to by NATO prior to Kohl's departure for the Soviet Union. Bush and Baker had to grin and swallow that one, too.
That the end of American, French and British occupation rights in Germany is at hand has been apparent for months. Termination is unavoidable and in most ways desirable. Denuclearizing East Germany is an acceptable price to pay for unification. But Kohl has taken a major step toward the eventual denuclearization of all German territory without convincing consultations with his allies. This is an important marker for the future.
Was the heavy symbolism of the new Soviet-German teamwork on security in Europe really necessary? Kohl could not have been unaware that in the Caucasus setting he was underlining the essential passivity, if not impotence, of his Western partners on the pace and content of German unification.
German strength and Soviet weakness have determined that pace and content for the past year. But the Kohl-Gorbachev meeting in Mineralnye Vody changes the dynamic. Gorbachev, who has handed over a string of preemptive capitulations to the West, now begins to pull in some chips.
It is tempting to view Gorbachev's latest concession on the German issue solely as a defeat for his policies and an unalloyed triumph for the Bush administration. It contains elements of both. But Gorbachev has emerged with the political partnership with West Germany that he has sought for more than a year. It will help him carry out the vast strategic Soviet retreat from Central Europe that is vital to putting the Soviet Union back on its feet.
Gorbachev has managed to get the West Germans to pay for that retreat and to guarantee that unification will bring economic advantages and financial help for the Soviets. Bonn has also agreed to engage in a treaty writing process with Moscow that will gradually diminish the U.S. presence and influence in Germany.
This is not chopped liver for a man who has been dealing from weakness throughout this exercise. When he visited Bonn a year ago, Gorbachev made clear to his West German hosts that he put a good economic and political relationship with West Germany at the very top of his priorities -- higher even than his relations with the Soviet satellites when that choice became inevitable. By shedding the costly and demeaning occupation force in Central Europe to German applause, Gorbachev has killed two strategic birds with one stone.
Moreover, he appears to have contained the "who lost Germany?" argument with no great difficulty at the Soviet Communist Party congress last week, which ended with a clear Gorbachev political victory over his hard-line adversaries and the dismantling of the Politburo as a power center.
This, then, is not the moment to speak of the failure of Gorbachev's European policy but rather of its relative success. That is an essential difference that American policy makers should keep in mind as they approach the next and much trickier phase of the remaking of Europe and of the Soviet Union.
It amounts to a simultaneous ending of World War II and of the Cold War. In neither case is the United States dealing with a defeated power that has no options. Gorbachev had no option but to agree to German unification in NATO; having accepted that, he is now free to influence the pan-European arrangements to come and the gradual dilution of NATO. The Bonn-Moscow link gives him the avenue to do so.
The Germans, citing 1919, have warned for months that they would block any attempt to impose any such form of surrender for World War II on them. They feel 45 years of atonement, recovery and democratic practice have erased the need for a World War II peace treaty. They have skillfully chipped away at the remaining symbols of Allied occupation and German defeat in World War II.
Kohl's unilateral announcement on Soviet soil about the Allied presence in Berlin drove home the point that Germany will decide when the last vestiges of the war are to be removed from its territory. It is a troubling display of the kind of unilateralism that the Germans have demanded that others not practice on them. And it is troubling that the U.S. government lacks the grit, and vision, to say so.