GERMANY'S unification is imminent - in practice if not in law. Far less clear is what place a reunited Germany will occupy in Europe and how it will relate to its neighbors. Time is short: Old institutions and assumptions are fast decaying, and only bold diplomacy can stave off a period of troubling uncertainty. President Bush has been wise to take a laissez-faire approach to German decisionmaking and to assert confidence in the outcome. His stance also reflects reality: When the Berlin Wall opened Nov. 9, the two Germanys became sovereign over their future. The Soviet Union, the last power able to prevent unification, gave up that capability in fact and now is rapidly abdicating it in policy.
The opening of the Wall was also the last desperate act of the East German regime to prevent the demise of the state. But that has only hastened change. Economic unification is passing the point of no return; political unification cannot be far behind.
European recognition of these facts is spawning a flurry of proposals. The East Germans have called for a unified but neutral Germany. West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher has suggested a united Germany in NATO, but with the eastern part free of Western troops. And Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Schevardnadze has tried to stem the tide by proposing a global referendum.
These ideas underscore the value of creating some means for an orderly unification.
Most important is the remaining structure of East-West confrontation, as a result of which Central Europe remains the most heavily armed region on earth. For all practical purposes, the Warsaw Pact is dead. NATO's military doctrine, both conventional and nuclear, cannot be proclaimed in any European parliament or public forum without political backlash. In the future, the US nuclear commitment, final guarantor of West European security, will recede to the background, becoming an ``existential'' deterrent to any recrudescent Soviet ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Vienna conventional arms control talks are being outmoded by events and the difficulties of calculating an East-West military balance.
At the same time, West Europeans disagree about a major effort to reduce uncertainty and to chart a course for the German future: the swift completion of the European Community's Single European Act. France presses onward because of concern about Germany; Britain holds back because of concerns about the loss of sovereignty. West Germany stands fast for Europe '92 but faces competing demands in Central and Eastern Europe.
It is premature to try creating the new architecture of European security. The course of East European societies - as well as of the Soviet Union - is far from sure.
But something must and can be done. It should begin with a joint declaration by all 35 members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), formally ratifying the sovereignty of the two Germanys in deciding upon unity. This act would assure them that their decision will be accepted, while underscoring the importance of their consulting with other states about the practical consequences.
The European Community should then promptly hold a summit to extend the Rome Treaty's mantle over the eastern part of a new Germany. This meeting should also resolve disagreements about the Delors plan for economic and monetary union, in order to attract the full political commitment to the Community of Britain and other member states that remain skeptical about ceding too much authority, too soon, to Brussels bureaucrats.
The United States should then meet with its NATO allies to devise a proposal for even more radical force reductions. It should not call for a formal East-West agreement, but rather a process of coordinating each side's withdrawals over a two- or three-year period. A residual US presence would remain on the continent - if need be based outside of Germany - while no Soviet troops would be in Eastern Europe.
With this course of events, the Soviets might accept a unified Germany's continued association with NATO, provided that NATO's essential purpose were to continue involving the United States politically in Europe. As the artifacts of yesterday's confrontation gradually disappear, the concepts of ``neutrality'' and ``alignment'' will progressively lose their meaning, and Germany could be firmly engaged in Western institutions without raising East-West security issues.
These political steps would set the basic directions for the European future. They would provide the political and institutional foundation for discussing, with less haste and more purpose, the critical issues of peacekeeping arrangements for Eastern Europe, pan-European architecture, and 21st-century attitudes about security. That task could properly begin at a CSCE summit meeting, which will almost surely take place this fall.