SETTING policy on the former Yugoslavia has turned out to be a tricky balancing act for Germany, with Bonn first taking a high profile on issues, then disappearing into the background.
* The new initiative calling for "safe havens" for Bosnian Muslims, pushed so strongly by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, made its debut in Berlin, not Washington, at a meeting between Mr. Kozyrev and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel on May 17. The Germans endorsed the strategy and saw Kozyrev safely off to Washington. But they did not accompany him and were not involved in the talks that firmed up the "joint program of action."
* This winter, the Germans stood alone in Europe when they called for a lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia-Herzegovina and when Mr. Kinkel began to talk up Western military intervention in Bosnia. By the time US Secretary of State Warren Christopher came to Bonn on May 6, however, Kinkel was already backpedalling, urging restraint, and warning that military action could lead to an escalation of the war.
* Just over two years ago, Bonn was out in front on the issue of recognizing the former Yugoslav republics and more or less railroaded recognition of Croatia and Slovenia through the European Community. Now the German press, if not the government, says recognition was a mistake.
Bonn's pattern of push ahead and fall back stems from the unique circumstances surrounding Germany and former Yugoslavia.
The assertive aspect is borne of the country's immediate and more distant history. Having just experienced the right to self determination through German unification, it was not surprising that a year later many Germans strongly supported independence for the former Yugoslav republics. Considering Germans' perceived moral duty to denounce genocide wherever it may appear, it is also not surprising that they began to sing the interventionist song after the horrors of "ethnic cleansing" were revealed.
On the other hand, several factors contribute to restraint in German policy. One is Bonn's long-held interpretation of its Constitution as prohibiting German participation in combat missions outside the NATO area. Another brake is Germany's history of brutality in the Balkans during World War II. The Germans also have not figured out how to use their new-found political weight in world politics.
The result, according to a Foreign Office official, is that Germany is now having to weigh its words more carefully and speak "at first with a quiet voice" on the subject of the Balkan war. Right now, at least, it is falling in behind Britain and France, supporting the new strategy of containment, and arguing that it is the first step to the fulfillment of the Vance-Owen plan.
The German press, however, is much less restrained. Leftist, centrist, and conservative newspapers have labeled containment a cave-in to Serbian aggression, a deathblow to the Vance-Owen plan, and a surrender of moral high ground.
In the May 22 issue of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine newspaper, a centrist paper in the west German industrial city of Essen, a commentator blasted the government for "hasty" recognition of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. "Bonn's activities opened trenches that made a common approach even more difficult."
But while the German press criticizes the government and its allies for their present and past course, it offers no more alternatives than the leaders it blames.