One week President Reagan pointedly declares he does not accept the "permanent subjugation" of Eastern Europe. Soon afterward the Soviet Union ends months of suspense and cuts short East Germany's effort to reach across the general East-West divide and cement its increasing ties with West Germany. Is there a connection?
Conceivably so. There is a circumstantial case to be made that the Reagan administration, for reasons that appeared to it right and necessary, this summer stepped over the bounds of tradition and discretion and contributed to an exercise in Soviet whipcracking that otherwise might have been avoided or softened.
Consider the astonishing European developments of the past year, a period supposedly dominated by the heightening of East-West tensions after Soviet-American talks on missiles in Europe broke down. Most members of the Warsaw Pact reacted by trying to improve relations with NATO, including the United States.
East Germany, long regarded as the most orthodox and disciplined of the Soviet client states, has been acting in a wholly novel self-interested way. More than any other East European country, it has refused to take the missile crisis as reason to extend the freeze between Moscow and Washington into a freeze between the two parts of Europe. On the contrary, it has taken that crisis as reason, or opening, to work for a thaw between the two parts of Europe, and especially between the two German states -- to "limit the damage," as communist chief Erich Honecker put it.
Quietly but unmistakably, he made known he had not been consulted and did not approve of the new missiles that the Kremlin started planting on East German soil after Washington began stationing new American missiles, with the consent of its allies, in the West; ditto, by the way, Czechoslovakia. Honecker undertook an unprecedented exchange of visits with Romania, the Warsaw Pact comrade noted most for conducting a policy not dictated in Moscow.
Rather than follow the Soviet line of piling new pressure on West Germany, East Germany expanded human, economic and political ties; it's also quietly trying to broaden official contacts and trade with the United States. It calmly stood up to the Soviet Union's public polemics, which presumably mirrored private warnings, criticizing its approaches to Bonn. It stood up, that is, until last Tuesday, when Honecker cancelled the long-anticipated first-ever visit to West Germany, which he had planned to crown his country's campaign for gaining legitimacy in the West.
There is much we do not know about Honecker's policy. In seeking a new tie with West Germany, to what extent is he driven by a desire to build a monument obscuring his role as the man who built the Berlin Wall in 1961? Is he being carried along not simply by a craving to make East Germany respectable but also by the same nationalistic currents that have been running in West Germany? Has he not cleverly used the East German peace movement, which surely owes much to the West German peace activities regularly seen on East German television, and which may be itself a surrogate vehicle of German nationalism? Exactly how has he taken advantage of the Kremlin's divisions and distractions to promote his German d,etente policy?
Such were some of the factors at play when President Reagan declared last month, to an election-year gathering of Polish Americans celebrating an anti-Soviet uprising in 1944, that he rejected any claim or thought that East Europe belongs irretrievably to a Soviet sphere. Secretary of State George Shultz soon underlined, in a formal address, the same theme.
They are, of course, right: the Red Army took East Europe as booty and buffer in World II, and since then all American governments have been publicly committed to its eventually becoming free. Since the mid-1950s, however, presidents have worked within a context of at least implicit respect for Moscow's vital interests in the region. Reagan's fervent public impatience with the Soviet grip is the new factor.
It must be asked, then, what impact was made on the Kremlin's East German deliberations when a president it regards as an anti-communist crusader weighed in, at a most delicate moment, with a fresh rhetorical challenge to its position on its most sensitive and strategic flank.
My guess is that Moscow is more likely to let a satellite lengthen the leash if the move is not presented as something that damages or defies the Soviet Union. I wonder if Reagan did not carelessly cross that line.