Global efforts to aid former Soviet republics are being described in humanitarian terms that are worthy in themselves but hardly reflective of the geo-political stakes involved.
Just as the United States launched the Marshall Plan for the dual purpose of reviving war-ravaged West European countries and countering the Stalinist threat, so the new rescue operation launched by a 47-nation Washington conference this week is designed not only to provide massive economic assistance but to prevent upheaval and regression that could confront the world with Cold War II.
This important initiative has been dominated until now by Germany, which has pledged or delivered an astounding 57.1 percent of the $80 billion in aid already going to the former Soviet Union. But Germany's reserves are largely depleted. The annual cost of financing its reunification is some $60 billion and it has furnished $17 billion to Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Germany will remain deeply involved, not least because it is apprehensive -- more apprehensive than the U.S. -- about the future behavior of the nuclear-tipped Red Army.
With a superpower shove from a financially strapped United States, pressure now is going to be put on money-bags nations such as Japan and the Persian Gulf oil powers. At the Washington meeting, Japan continued to hold back its aid until it secures the return of four northern islands captured by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II -- this, despite a widely held suspicion the islands issue is an excuse for niggardliness. We suspect Japan will cave in when it hosts a meeting of the new consortium later this year.
For the United States, the new momentum reflects a change of heart, if not of substance, by the Bush administration. Despite pleas from Germany, Washington clung to the theory that massive economic aid before reforms are put in place would merely preserve bad habits and an old, corrupt system. This is still the basic U.S. position. But economic deterioration in the Soviet Union has reached a point where, in Sen. Joseph Biden's words, the United States could scarcely afford to be "absent at the creation" of what might be called Marshall Plan II.
Mr. Bush pledged $645 million in economic grants at the Washington meeting to augment $5 billion in lines of credit. Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced a symbolic U.S. airlift of supplies to stricken parts of the old Soviet empire. His call to "wage a new peace" may please internationalists but enrage "America First" isolationists.
How President Bush will finance the new assistance will likely be disclosed in his State of the Union address. We believe it should be taken from a depleted defense budget. Internal peace in the former Soviet Union, together with the control and elimination of its nuclear arsenal, is as much a concern for U.S. security as the old Soviet threat that gave rise to NATO and accounted for half the Pentagon budget.