THE rigid framework of military alliances in Europe has finally been shattered for good, after enduring essentially unaltered since the end of World War II. By dropping his objection to a united Germany joining NATO, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has ceded Warsaw Pact territory to what his country long considered the other side. In doing so, Mr. Gorbachev emphasized that for Europeans the term ``other side'' is rapidly losing meaning. After Germany unites, it will conclude a treaty with the Soviet Union that among other things will say that ``the two sides will not consider themselves adversaries,'' said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on July 17.
That the USSR had little choice but to bless a united Germany in NATO made the final move no less surprising. The United States was caught curiously flat-footed. Secretary of State James Baker III heard about the agreement between Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl from news accounts.
President Bush phoned Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl from Washington July 17, congratulating each as if they were victorious World Series managers. Both men ``have displayed exceptional qualities of leadership in this challenging period,'' President Bush told a group of magazine publishers after his calls.
Photos of Kohl, beaming uncontrollably, with Gorbachev beside him, have conveyed his obvious comfort with increased German influence in the world. The two-plus-four talks of the victorious World War II powers and the two Germanys, which began July 17 in Paris, were ostensibly set up as the forum to hammer out problems of German reunification. But it was Kohl and Gorbachev alone, thousands of miles from Paris and a day before the two-plus-four round began, who announced agreement on what was by far the most important reunification problem remaining.
Though the US has long championed the result Kohl and Gorbachev announced, the US seems to have ceded to West Germany a leading role in shaping new European security structures, says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
While the US has been slow to let loose of its vision of the Soviets as adversaries, the West Germans are willing to begin thinking of the Soviet Union as a partner.
``That's what the Soviets are fundamentally after. We were unwilling to give it to them, so they're getting it from the Germans,'' says Mr. Steinbruner.
On the other hand, the Bush administration appears to genuinely support German reunification with few, if any, reservations. US officials have publicly and privately insisted that it is something NATO has wanted for 45 years and should be embraced.
Britain and France, among others, have quietly worried about the implications of the new Germany - witness the resignation last week of British Trade Minister Nicholas Ridley after a public anti-German tirade.
The problem now for NATO is what to do after the opposition packs it in. Clearly new sorts of political alliances and arrangements are coming.
NATO itself should continue in existence, both to guard against any residual threat from the East and to provide an institutional framework for the US to conduct relations with its longtime Western European friends, says Barry Blechman, head of Defense Forecasts Inc.
But NATO won't be able to handle such large problems as reassuring the Soviets about Germany, and disputes that might arise among newly democratizing Eastern European states.
A five-power arrangement - the World War II victors Britain, France, the US, and the USSR, plus the new Germany - might be one way of institutionalizing a Soviets-plus-NATO partnership. The larger CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) might then serve as a ratifying body, similar to the UN General Assembly.
The US must realize that a new security structure is inevitable, and will be laid alongside NATO, instead of replacing it, Mr. Blechman says. ``I would hope the administration will be more forthcoming on this.''
One thing recent events do threaten to make irrelevant is the troop limit provision of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty being negotiated in Vienna.
As CFE now stands, the Soviets have agreed to a limit of 195,000 for their troops in a central European zone. But Gorbachev has already promised West Germany that he will withdraw all Red Army units from what is now East Germany and similar agreements have been reached with Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Poland is the only nation in this troop limit zone that hasn't yet kicked out the Soviets - but ``there aren't going to be 195,000 Soviet soldiers in Poland,'' says Greg Weaver, a senior military analyst with the SAIC Corporation.