THE multinational action against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has raised uncomfortable questions about the global role of a newly unified Germany, to which the country probably will respond this year with constitutional changes. Germany's constitutional debate on the use of its military, however, is a poor cover for the more fundamental confusion that exists regarding the desirability of an activist German foreign policy. By acting out its national insecurities in a constitutional theater, Germany may risk tying its own hands so tightly that it will endanger alliance relationships.
In terms of international standing, the past several weeks have been a bad time for Germany. While the Bonn government pledged solidarity with coalition forces, headlines described the role of German business in developing Iraq's unconventional arms. No German civilians or troops joined the effort to free Kuwait. On the streets, Germans appeared to blame the war at least as much on the United States as on Saddam Hussein.
As usual, image is at best a small slice of reality. Germany's role in the arming of Iraq was no more severe than that of several other countries. Despite the high costs of unification, Germany has promised generous financial support to the US and other members of the anti-Iraq coalition. And German public opinion is not as one-sided as the peace movement suggests. Polls show that about 75 percent of Germans think that military action was necessary against Iraq.
Germany's fundamental dilemma is revealed in another polling result: At the same time that 75 percent of Germans saw the necessity of war with Iraq, an equal proportion opposed the deployment of German troops to join the fight. While they recognize the need to oppose aggression and maintain global stability, many Germans disavow any role in achieving those ends - despite having a 500,000-man army and the most powerful economy on the Eurasian land mass. This paradox of Germany's strength and restored sov ereignty on the one hand, and its underdeveloped sense of global place and nationhood on the other, has created a massive case of mixed feelings among Germans themselves and among outsiders.
Some Germans look at their nation's past and conclude, unification or not, that Germany must never stray beyond economic or humanitarian realms in using its considerable power abroad. Others say that the economic resurrection of eastern Germany and the expansion of commitments abroad cannot proceed in tandem. Still others wait in confusion for a signal from the outside world. "We do not know what you expect us to be," one German diplomat said privately last month. Europeans, in particular, seem at once reassured by German pacifism and frustrated by the unequal distribution of risks.
Given this confusion of emotions, financial demands, and perceived external pressures, German leaders have taken the worst possible course: constitutional tinkering that is premature and probably unnecessary. A good case could be made that German military involvement in the Gulf coalition is in fact permitted under Germany's current constitution, its "Basic Law," to which many often-exaggerated restrictions on the country's military activity have been attributed.
The Basic Law permits Germany to join in a system of collective security that "brings about and secures a peaceful and lasting order in Europe and between the peoples of the world." That is the constitutional justification for Germany's membership in NATO, and it could have justified a German commitment of troops or other active support to the international coalition against Iraq - a "collective security" effort with full United Nations backing.
THAT is an interpretation that many German politicians do not share, however. And it is an interpretation that Chancellor Helmut Kohl, while he may share it, was not inclined to advocate during last autumn's campaign. Instead, Mr. Kohl accepted the notion that the Basic Law had to be changed before German troops could be sent to the Gulf or to any other non-European theater. In doing so, Kohl opened a Pandora's box.
The chancellor's coalition partners, the Free Democrats, and almost all of his parliamentary opposition hold a minimalist view of Germany's global security role, which would permit the country to act only under the UN flag. The most generous constitutional language that Kohl might get through parliament would allow German participation in military actions organized by the UN or a European organization. Even that formula would not permit German involvement in a future scenario similar to the recent one i n the Middle East, organized and led by the US.
The most likely conflicts of the coming decade and of the 21st century will not take place on the plains of Central Europe or threaten Germany along the traditional East-West divide. If conflicts occur, they will occur in a South-South or a North-South context. Should Germany legislate itself out of any responsibility for confronting those most likely forms of aggression, then the significance of the Atlantic alliance - and certainly of the German- American "special partnership" in which Chancellor Kohl seemed to revel last year - will be diminished.
A survey last month asked Germans to name the country they consider most desirable as a model for the Germany of the year 2000. The top two choices, accounting for almost 70 percent of all respondents, were Switzerland and Sweden - countries that have elevated neutrality to an art form.
Some say the survey and Germany's response to the Middle East crisis bring welcome news; proving a new national morality and the conquering of a dark, aggressive past. It is far from clear, however, that it is more moral to remain on the sidelines, or merely to help pay for a war, than it is to stake the supreme value of human life on a cause that is just.