BERLIN — GEOGRAPHY and economic power make it inevitable that the long-term security and stability of Europe will rest on German security and stability. That in turn will depend on Germany's relations with the three major powers closest to it: the Soviet Union (or whatever takes its place), France, and the United Kingdom.
The United States and Canada are also involved, and will be so long as the NATO structure lasts -- if it lasts; however, theirs is an indirect connection. The trouble is between Germany and France and Britain.
One places a question mark over NATO's future because solid as NATO appears today, change is very rapid now and the Persian Gulf crisis is a drastic drain of American attention from NATO. War there would make that worse. In Europe, the goal of security is demilitarization.
Germany made that evident at a recent Aspen Institute Berlin conference on German security. It is one reason Germans have resolutely ignored the gulf. War there does not fit their belief that non-military measures of security, economic and political measures, should be substituted for the forms of military security dominating the last 44 years.
These are not unreasonable expectations. Force reductions in Europe are already virtually certain to go below the levels mandated in the conventional force reduction agreement signed last week at Paris.
Germany will reduce its military personnel to a 370,000 total within four years, a cut of more than a third from the East and West German force that existed before German unification. Soviet forces will be out of East Germany and Eastern Europe as fast as conditions in the U.S.S.R. (housing, jobs) permit, and in any case by the end of 1994.
The French are pulling their troops out of Germany, and Britain and the U.S. are reducing theirs. It is a reasonable bet that Western forces will be completely out of Germany by the time the Russians are. A year ago everyone would have thought a continued allied force in Germany essential, one that included Americans and Canadians. Six months ago one would have held it probable that such a force would be there for the foreseeable future. Now it seems merely a possibility.
This makes German-French-British relations more important than ever, but current German-French relations are bad, and Britain's relations with both France and Germany are worse, or have been until now. And of course Germany's other major neighbor, the Soviet Union, is in so chaotic a condition that no one can know what will happen there.
Bad relations among the three Western powers are mainly the product of the strain German unification has placed on the alliance structure of the last four decades, complicated by the hostility of the Thatcher government in Britain toward both European political integration and a united Germany.
In France German unification and Britain's enmity have produced a sense of isolation, reinforcing the old French inclination toward destructive behavior and self-fulfilling pessimism.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl made his contributions to worsened relations with his neighbors by evasiveness last year on the Polish border question, and subsequently by direct negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev for a Russo-German settlement last July that included a mutual non-aggression pledge.
That agreement also provided major economic aid for Russia, and annoyed the U.S. as well as Britain and France. They had believed that they, as the Second World War's victors, were the ones negotiating a German settlement with Moscow.
The French drew from the event deeply gloomy conclusions about the future of Western cooperation. They announced withdrawal of the three French armored divisions that have been stationed in Germany.
The Germans in turn were amazed by the French reaction, believing that Germany at this late date need not apologize to its allies for taking Germany's affairs in hand. The Germans' assumption is that Germany has served its sentence. Forty-four years of limited sovereignty are enough. It is no longer incumbent on Germans to defer to all that their allies say and think.
An outsider can find it difficult to take all this as seriously as some of the participants are taking it, particularly in France, where domestic political quarrel and maneuver is peculiarly sordid at the moment and pessimism is a la mode. The need of the three countries for one another remains very great and increases with every new step in the political disintegration and economic collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Fortunately there are occasions when a deus does arise from the Greek dramatist's script -- ungodlike as Mr. Michael Heseltine may have seemed in recent days. By deposing Mrs. Thatcher he has unexpectedly, and with more than ample drama, provided Britain, and Europe, with a new British prime minister, John Major, free of Mrs. Thatcher's obsessive hostility to European entanglements.
That can make an enormous difference to the European balance. Greater Franco-British security cooperation, and a more cooperative British approach to the problems of monetary cooperation and economic union in Europe, which particularly preoccupy the Germans today, could make a great change in the politico-psychological climate in both Germany and France.
The Germans today count a great deal on the new institutions set up at the Paris summit by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. They have a perhaps exaggerated faith in what CSCE cooperation can provide as a non-militarized alternative to the military security provided by NATO.
At a moment when events in Poland, as well as in the Soviet Union, imply a chaotic future rather more convincingly than a cooperative one, the Germans need their Western allies more than they think.