President Mikhail Gorbachev has flashed a hole card he may play at the Washington summit this week by suggesting that the Soviet Union will accept a united Germany's membership in NATO in return for German withdrawal from the alliance's integrated military command.
The suggestion, made by Gorbachev at a press conference in Moscow on Friday, is seen by Western diplomats as the opening shot in a Soviet campaign to press Germany into following the so-called French model. France remains a member of NATO politically but refuses to host U.S. or other foreign troops and does not commit national combat units to NATO's control.
Anticipating Gorbachev's move, the Bush administation in recent weeks has been pushing France to enhance its military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to change the nature of the French model. Washington has pushed for a summit-level review of NATO policies and strategies in London on July 5.
As part of this effort, President Bush proposed to President Francois Mitterrand at Key Largo, Fla., in mid-March that France end its 30-year refusal to have any foreign troops on French soil by agreeing to host U.S. fighter-bombers being moved out of Spain, according to one authoritative account.
The three squadrons of F-16s are due to move from Spain to Italy by 1992. But Congress is balking at putting up half of the $700 million that building a new base for them in Italy will cost. Finding existing facilities in France where at least some of the F-16s could be stationed would also relieve budgetary problems for the White House.
Mitterrand agreed to consider the proposal, according to the account, without committing France to what would be a major policy reversal.
The White House declined comment yesterday on this account. But U.S. officials have been encouraged by the fact that Mitterrand has not rejected U.S. ideas on changing France's relationship to NATO out of hand, as past French leaders would have done. Bush has been careful not to suggest that France should simply rejoin the NATO military command, a request that Mitterrand publicly says he will not consider.
But French officials say they would be astonished if Paris eventually agreed to the reported request on the F-16s. They portray French-American conflict on NATO as likely to grow in the months ahead as the alliance sets about reinventing its 40-year-old structure and strategies.
While the United States sees the NATO review as a chance to maintain U.S. leadership in European affairs through the 16-nation alliance, France wants a greatly strengthened European role to result from this process, U.S. and European diplomats say. The French are likely to resist U.S. proposals that do not help accomplish this.
The revamping of NATO to absorb a united Germany and the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe will be at the center of the conversations Bush and Gorbachev will hold in Washington beginning Thursday, say European and American officials. At his Moscow press conference, Gorbachev made this explicit by saying that Moscow would have to review its approach to East-West negotiations if a united Germany becomes a military member of NATO.
The tough talk may have been intended more for domestic consumption than to set a threatening tone for the Washington discussions. His political and economic problems at home leave Gorbachev in a weak bargaining position at the summit. His signal that a deal can be made on Germany's entry into NATO, even if it is not to the West's liking, may represent an opening offer that can be negotiated.
Although heavily conditioned, Friday's remark by Gorbachev was the first time he had accepted publicly any sort of German membership in NATO. His hard line against NATO membership until now has resembled his initial firm rejection of German unification, which he dropped after preparing Soviet public opinion.
The fact that Gorbachev voiced his tentative approval of the French model for a united Germany at a joint press conference with Mitterrand in Moscow will rekindle concern in the West about France's attitude toward the major strategy review to be taken up at a NATO summit meeting in London July 5-6.
"Closer cooperation by the French with NATO is very important now, to strengthen our hand in negotiations concerning unification," a senior West German official said in Bonn several days before Gorbachev's remarks. "It can help persuade the Soviets that they have nothing to gain from pursuing the French model. One of the most important things Bush can do at the summit is to help the Soviets from taking positions on German unification that they will have to back down on, since they cannot block it."
But French officials voice irritation over U.S. attempts to revise NATO's mandate to include joint operations outside Europe and to consider issues like nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation in the Third World -- making NATO "more political," in U.S. shorthand.
"We are ready to contribute to a long-term renewal of the framework of NATO," a French official said in Paris last week, "and American officials who understand that understand that we want to be helpful. But we will not contribute to instant reforms that give the impression something is being done about European security while letting it go down the drain."
Gorbachev may be counting on German public opinion to back the idea of the French model of NATO membership. Some U.S. experts on Europe say such a shift is inevitable.
"It is an absolute certainty that in the course of this decade a unified Germany will say to all concerned that it no longer wishes . . . to be the only occupied country in Europe," former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in Newsday last week. "It will suggest instead that the proper arrangement for Germany is like that for Norway or France or Spain. . . . It will be impossible to resist this demand."
Like France, Spain and Norway are members of NATO but insist on having special arrangements that limit their cooperation within the military command. At present, all West German military units are assigned to NATO.