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Four Decades After Marshall Plan, Kohl Promises Symbolism, Irony

Experts Wonder Whether Chancellor Plans to Make Major Policy Announcement

By Jonathan S. Cohn

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's speech at Harvard's Commencement this afternoon symbolizes not only the dawn of a new order for Europe, but also the end of an era that began with a speech on the very same rostrum four decades ago.

In 1947, Gen. George C. Marshall used his Harvard Commencement address to outline his famous plan to rebuild war-ravaged Europe. The Marshall Plan eventually funneled billions of American dollars into Europe, and came to symbolize America's military and economic hegemony in Europe.

In today's address in Tercenterary Theater, Kohl will likely discuss the Marshall Plan, too, but in a different context. Although Kohl still urges a strong American presence in Europe, he realizes that Germany and other European states can exist without such strong American influence.

While few dispute that Europe is far more stable than it was 40 years ago, many are now concerned that Kohl--the leading advocate for quick German unification--wants too much too quickly. Many critics, in fact, feel he is seriously jeopardizing long-term stability for his own political ends.

Ever since the Berlin Wall fell last year, Kohl has made it no secret that he wants to be the first chancellor of a united Germany.

For instance, when East Germany readied for its first free parliamentary elections in more than 40 years, Kohl waged a tough campaign on behalf of the party supporting quick unification. On March 18, that party won overwhelming victories throughout the country.

This kind of eagerness--and this kind of success--has frightened many Europeans who remember all too well the dangers of a powerful unified German state. Many Europeans perceive rising German nationalism as a threat to the transnational institutions they have built over the last 40 years--most notably the united Europeans Economic Community--and many perceive Kohl as the instigator.

Early on, Kohl did nothing to assuage these fears. Instead, Kohl fanned the flames of controversy; his February statement that Germany might not respect the post-World War II borders of Poland set off a wave of anti-Kohl sentiment, which only subsided after Kohl recanted.

Despite this controversy, experts at Harvard and other American universities say they are willing to give Kohl the benefit of the doubt. They say that for the most part, Kohl has simply been going along with strong domestic support for quick reunification.

"I think he's doing a great deal of good--he's very balanced," says Dennis L. Bark, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute and author of a recently published two-volume history of West Germany.

Some credit Kohl for avoiding long, protracted processes that could stall the unification process and lead to further instability.

"I think he's a politician who moves with dispatch, one who has a good eye for the opportunities that present themselves. I think there are pros and cons to moving with speed," says Peter A. Hall, professor of political economy. "I actually think he's doing the right thing."

And Harvard's Joseph S. Nye, Ford Foundation professor of international security agrees that Kohl has acted wisely. "I think he's handled it all very well," he says.

But praise for Kohl is usually qualified. Even his supporters acknowledge that the West German leader has often followed national opinion instead of providing his own initiatives.

"There's that famous joke about the revolutionary leader who says, 'Where's that crowd? I'm its leader,'" says Nye.


While Kohl's Harvard appearance may have great symbolic value, experts wonder whether Kohl will use the pulpit in Tercentary Theater to announce the kind of policy initiative that Marshall did.

Were Kohl to make a major policy announcement, they say it would most likely involve a plan to ease Soviet fears about German presence in NATO. Both Kohl and President Bush have said that a unified Germany would help preserve European stability and should be a member of the Atlantic Alliance.

Gorbachev, however, has continued to oppose German membership in NATO. Accepting a German presence in the Western alliance would be perceived as a great loss at home, and could have devastating effects on Gorbachev's program for domestic reform, experts say.

According to Nye, "the diplomatic gossip has it that [Kohl] and Bush have already worked out" a compromise that would satisfy the Soviets. Such a compromise might include the continued presence of Soviet troops on East German soil, or massive West German payments to the Soviet Bloc.

But even if such a compromise is already in the works, experts say it is unlikely that Kohl would announce it while in the United States. With West German elections set for December, experts say Kohl would want to make such an announcement on German soil, so he could best reap the political profits at home.

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