GERMANY, watching the postwar era fade into history, is struggling to redefine its role in the world. Reunification started this process. But lawmakers, journalists, and political analysts here say that it is actually coalition criticism of Germany's nonparticipation in the Gulf war which is speeding it up.
Now that Germany is reunited and fully sovereign, it must take on more responsibility internationally, especially in global security, says Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
But becoming a nation among equals is a difficult transition. It means a sea change - dropping the postwar status of Germany as "economic giant, political dwarf, and military worm," as Wilhelm Hortmann wrote recently in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
Professor Hortmann's nearly full-page article, "What it means to be German," is just one among a multitude in the press as Germans try to sort out what Germany's responsibility to the world is.
In another leading conservative newspaper, Die Welt, political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz warns against German "isolationism." He says the "big debate" has begun on how long, and at what price, the Germans can afford isolationism.
Meanwhile, the leading newspaper on the left, Die Zeit, argued in mid-March that the Gulf war victory was "dubious" and that Germans were thankfully not military participants. "Let them call us dodgers," wrote Marion Grafin Donhoff. "What do we care?"
The national debate on Germany's world role is also taking place in the Bundestag, or parliament. The issue there is how to change the German Constitution to allow out-of-NATO-area deployment of German troops. In the Gulf war, the Germans said their Constitution prevented them from deploying troops to the region.
Far from being a merely technical question, say lawmakers, military policy is the last hurdle on the road to German normalcy in international affairs.
"It's the last difficulty," says Bundestag member Rupert Scholz, a former defense minister under Mr. Kohl. Germany is complete in all other ways, he says, describing it as reunited, sovereign, and an economic and political motor in Europe.
The issue is also seen as a litmus test for Bonn vis-a-vis its allies. "A lot of German credibility rides on this," says Thomas Kielinger, editor-in-chief of the weekly Rheinischer Merkur. Aligning Germany's security policy with that of its European partners is essential if Europe is going to follow through on political union, says Mr. Kielinger. In the next conflict, Germany's allies will expect more than a check.
The responses to the out-of-area question reflect the degrees to which Germans are prepared to launch into new waters.
The Social Democrats (SPD), the opposition on the left, have the most limiting approach. For the moment, they agree that the German Army could take part in United Nations peacekeeping missions, but only under UN command and control.
The centrist Free Democrats, Kohl's junior coalition partner, go a step further and support UN-sanctioned excursions, even if they are not under UN command. This would allow, then, for German participation in a Gulf-like situation in which the United States was the clear leader.
Kohl, who leads the Christian Democrats (CDU), takes the most wide-reaching position of all, which would permit German troops to participate not only in UN-sanctioned cases, but also in European-sanctioned ones.
An odd twist is that many legal experts and politicians, reportedly including Kohl himself, do not believe that the Constitution restricts German troop deployments to the NATO area only.
"The false interpretation of the Constitution reflects the state of political awareness in this country," says Mr. Scholz.
It reflects the postwar aversion to the idea of Germany as a military and political heavyweight. It also reflects 40 years of fixation on the East-West conflict, in which the only military engagement Germans could imagine was a defensive one on their own soil.
The restrictive interpretation, meanwhile, has now become political reality, says Scholz. The reason Kohl thinks it is necessary to change the Constitution, he says, is not only to clarify it, but to forge a new, political consensus. As the US learned in Vietnam, sending troops abroad without the backing of the people leads to political disaster.
Karsten Voigt, the SPD's authority on security issues in the Bundestag, argues that considerable consensus has already been reached on the out-of-area question.
"Two or three years ago, it was a minority position to discuss even [German participation in] UN peacekeeping forces," he says.
In the long-run, Mr. Voigt argues, Germany "is well advised" to move toward participation in engagements that are not just restricted to UN command, as the SPD proposes. But Germany "must go slowly," he warns. Germans, as well as countries such as France and Britain, are wary of militaristic thinking redeveloping in Germany, says Voigt.
"The world does not want to rediscover what good soldiers the Germans can be," said Richard von Weizsacker, Germany's widely respected president, in an interview in Die Zeit last month.
This is an outdated argument, rebutts Kielinger. "If we continue to say we're not to be trusted, we'll only feed the distrust." Over the last 40 years, Germany has proved itself, he says. Now, he adds, Germany is using its Constitution as an excuse to let others do the dirty work.
Political observers in Bonn say it will take two to five years for the Germans to resolve the out-of-area issue. With the Gulf war over, the pressure is certainly off, although neither the march toward European union, nor Germany's allies, will let the Germans postpone the question indefinitely, they say.
The process of thinking about it has begun, though Voigt argues that the security issue is not the only identity question the Germans face. "There is the problem of our identity as the German nation," he says, the coming together of the haves and have-nots, of two different societies. It looks like this question will take much longer to answer than that of Germany's world role.