It has always been difficult for a nation to come to terms with diminished power. Yet that is one result in the U.S. of the West's victory over the Soviet empire. The threat of nuclear annihilation has ended, and with it America's leverage over its allies. The economic clout of the U.S. doesn't match the clout of the old nuclear umbrella.
Nowhere is this suddenly skewed relationship more evident than in our relations with Japan and--even more strikingly--reunited Germany. The states that became major economic powers under our nuclear shield have already begun asserting their economic clout by asking for a stronger voice in the U.N. Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
Americans are most conscious of the ongoing change in relations with Japan. But German assertiveness has gone even further. Not that the Germans are all that sure how to use their newfound power. They want to help Europe become more competitive and more unified. Yet when the Germans attempt to reshape Europe in the image they deem rational, they are criticized for overstepping their bounds--especially in Paris, but elsewhere, too.
So it's no surprise that Washington also finds Germany's emergence as a full-fledged European power a mixed blessing. There are clearly positive dimensions: A strong German economy is a major market for U.S. goods. The Americans have a trade surplus with Germany--and Europe. Further, thousands of U.S. companies ranging from General Motors Corp. and IBM to tiny makers of parts have growing market shares in Germany. Some companies are using German partners or subsidiaries to help strengthen their presence throughout Europe, both Eastern and Western. In that sense, the Americans are far more tightly woven into the economic fabric of Germany than they ever will be in Japan.
But German self-direction still makes Washington uncomfortable. At a time when U.S. fiscal policy depends on low interest rates, it chafes that the Germans won't bring down the high rates they're using against inflationary pressures. And the State Dept. is vexed that Bonn bulldozed the European Community and Washington into recognizing Croatia and Slovenia, undermining the Administration's instinct to put off a decision. Other irritants include German determination to protect its inefficient but politically potent farmers and pointed German proposals that the U.S. commit billions for struggling peoples in the East.
Finally, let's face it: The Germans have an image problem that is not going to go away--in spite of Bonn's excellent record on human rights, its sensitivity to the burden of its own history, and its unmatched track record as a staunch member of the Atlantic Alliance. Whatever they do, the twin stains of the Holocaust and Nazi aggression will remain.
That being said, Washington must work hard to remain fully engaged with the Germans, despite the ambivalent feelings each has about the other. There will be more times when we don't agree with the Germans. There also will be times when we are irritated to find that the U.S. vision of Europe doesn't mesh with the German view, as the German economic powerhouse is increasingly in Europe's driver's seat. But despite those frustrations, it's important to remember that the Washington connection is extremely important to the Germans. It adds to their respectability and legitimacy in Europe and helps salve century-old European animosities. Through a combination of economic, diplomatic, and military means, Washington must continue its spectacularly successful post-World War II engagement.