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LET EAST GERMANS JOIN NATO?

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It's hard to overstate the importance of the talks scheduled late this month or early in May between the foreign ministers of the World War II victors plus East and West Germany.

Much more is at stake than just the reunification of the two German states, historic though such a move would be.What's also weighing in the balance is the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the security of Europe against aggression by either Russia or a bigger Germany.

So far, Washington has played its cards just right, spurning some Soviet ploys that were patently unrealistic. Since the United States is dealing from the stronger position, it can afford to keep refusing to compromise in pursuit of its objectives. But when it comes to formulating those objectives, it's sometimes easier to say what should be rejected than what should be accepted.

At this point, Moscow's policy on German reunification can be described as a disorderly retreat.

At first, the Soviets opposed any suggestion of reunification. When that stance became clearly untenable, Moscow said it could support reunification if Germany became neutral and was demilitarized. Later, the Soviets dropped their insistence on neutrality but said Germany must not remain in NATO.

In the latest variation of this policy, Russia is now insisting that a united Germany retain membership in both NATO and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact until a new security organization could be formed. At present, West Germany belongs to NATO, East Germany to the Warsaw Pact.

President Bush, however, insists that a reunited Germany be a full-fledged NATO member - a prospect that dismays Russia even though it also poses problems for the West. But then no alternative is without its drawbacks.

A unified Germany, unfettered by membership in NATO, could be a danger to its neighbors just as Germany was in 1914 and the 1930's.

But it's hard to put much confidence in new allies who were recently in the enemy camp and might retain informal ties and pipelines to the foe. Consequently, the prospect of a NATO containing East Germans can't be considered an unalloyed boon to the West.

For its part, Moscow professes to see the loss of East Germany to NATO as a potential threat to Russia's security. But the Soviets may have no choice except to yield, since the seven-nation Warsaw Pact has almost disintegrated, with Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia now governed by non-communist regimes.

The resulting weakness of the Warsaw Pact should make it easier for NATO to welcome a reunified Germany into full membership. But many years will have to pass before the former East Germans in such a partnership can be fully trusted.