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A unified Germany, slowly

Published Oct. 16, 2005

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has come to one firm conclusion:Speedy German reunification would be a wonderful thing for Helmut Kohl.

Whether Kohl's hazy vision of reunification would be equally wonderful for all other Germans, or for all of Germany's neighbors, is another matter altogether.

No one ever accused Kohl of being a geopolitical genius. His motives - including the election of a compatible government in next month's East German elections - are narrower and more immediate than those of the diplomats who should have the responsibility of redrawing the divisions of a new, strategically stable Europe. Political pressures within West Germany, combined with the virtual political void that now exists within East Germany, have driven Kohl to take the lead in pressing for a hastily constructed reunification - one that Europe and the United States might then come to regret at their leisure.

Tuesday's agreement among the four World War II Allies at least helps put the brakes on events in East Germany before they spiral further out of control. It encourages Bonn to take unilateral action to help East Germany deal with its degenerating economic crisis by establishing a monetary union based on the deutsche mark. West Germany would incur significant short-term costs, but they are dwarfed by the potential costs of a complete collapse of the East German financial system.

The Allies must assure themselves, as well as Poland and Germany's other European neighbors, that the terms of that economic reunification are not allowed to dictate the terms of the political and military negotiations that will follow.

The most important question concerning a politically unified Germany - its future relationship with NATO, particularly the future of NATO and Warsaw Pact troops now stationed on opposite sides of the country - is not close to being resolved. The prospect of a neutral Germany seems to be losing ground. The Soviets still publicly favor that course, but they now are isolated on the issue. Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European governments have joined the West in opposition. However, full NATO participation on the part of a unified

Germany seems equally inconceivable.

The question of foreign military forces in Germany is, if anything, even more muddled.

British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, one of the few negotiators willing to envision the terms of an ultimate agreement, suggested a period in which some Soviet troops would be permitted to remain in present-day East Germany even in the context of a united Germany affiliated with NATO. That prospect seems far-fetched, if not nonsensical, and illustrates the extent to which the questions of the Germanys' economic, political and military futures are intertwined.

Kohl's eagerness notwithstanding, this is a time for giving consideration to as many serious voices as possible. Poland's new leaders, whose vital interests should be obvious, have been forced to petition the Allies and the two Germanys to be included in the multilateral negotiations on the issue. They, along with all other affected governments, should be invited to participate under the framework announced this week. The stakes of those negotiations involve nothing less than the political and military stability of the modern nuclear world. Answering those questions quickly is far less

important than answering them correctly.