Santa Fe, New Mexico. -- The rest of the world got it mostly right judging the debate of the democracies about Yugoslavia. It was the first mighty statement by the new Germany in geopolitics. With early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, the Germans defied their allies, including America, and prevailed. But it was more than that: a standard for the future, and a warning of the world's stake in Germany.
It cannot be put too bluntly. From size, wealth and location, Germany will decide the future of the continent and perhaps the new balance of power. Germany successful could propel Europe into world leadership. France is unable and unwilling to lead. Britain is still groping for a role. Except for vague resolve to remain a power in Europe, so is America. Germany failing also would lead Europe -- into who knows what darkness.
The obvious outlook is of course for something between wondrous success and cataclysmic failure. But many Americans are still suspended in the initial wonder of German reunification. That partly reflects the limitations of time and space on the American media. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and America's domestic erosion have pre-empted a German story that otherwise would have been examined like a rare bug under a microscope. Germany's allies have suppressed their anxiety, acknowledging unification as a 40-year objective suddenly irreversible and knowing that otherwise they would be accused of Germany-bashing.
The European media, especially the German media, deal daily with the practical problems of unification, recognizing that it came without guarantees. Money is central to most issues. The German economy may be the greatest uncertainty of all.
Rehabilitation in the east will require a fourth of the budget for the foreseeable future. Start with the bill for shipping home hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, building apartments for them in the former Soviet Union and repairing their environmental wreckage in Germany. A German officer speaks with incredulity of their heedlessness: ''When they failed to use their quota of jet fuel they poured it on the ground, causing kerosene pollution 60 meters down.''
Pollution was the normal industrial pattern of the eastern states. Rivers run black with waste. Residents of Bitterfeld, home of a vast chemical complex, are careful not to let the water of the city's Silver Lake touch their skin. Even the surrounding earth is toxic. Clean-up to minimum standards and modernization will require years and billions of marks. ''We knew what was needed here,'' reports Wolfgang Baronius, a director under the old government as well as the new. ''We just couldn't get back the money from the money we paid the state.''
Growing unemployment in the east can be resolved only as rehabilitation proceeds. Much depends on the Treuhandanstalt, the public trustees charged with selling or closing former state-owned firms. So far, the treuhand has unavoidably increased joblessness, firing tens of thousands of unneeded employees in order to make businesses attractive to private investors.
Some costs are volatile politically as well as financially. Joachim Gauck, the Lutheran pastor assigned to ventilate the files of the Stasi, the east's dread State Security Service, has estimated cash cost as high as $200 million.
The Stasi had a diligent staff of more than 100,000 and as many as 200,000 informers in a nation of 16 million. Mr. Gauck's staff sifts what he describes as ''202 kilometers of documents'' mentioning, favorably or unfavorably, as many as 4 million easterners and 2 million West Germans. The government aims to give all of them access to their files.
''We thought hard about this,'' says Mr. Gauck, who endured years of opened mail, tapped telephones and subversion of his colleagues. ''Better to open them or keep them closed? We finally concluded that people have to decide.'' Many Germans, east and west, say no. As a Christian Democrat leader puts it, ''I know what the police did to harass me. I don't think I want to know if my brother-in-law gossiped about me to curry favor.'' Mr. Gauck concedes: ''We expect some family crises.''
Some sources of social tension are not translatable into deutschemarks at all. Fascist skinheads who attack foreign workers in the east and vandalize Jewish cemeteries in the west are spiritual heirs of the Stasi as well as the Nazis. As other West European nations neutralize terrorists of the left, the Red Army Faction thrives in Germany. These are not mindless fanatics, but sophisticated killers who challenge the best of the police. Last April, they murdered Detlev Rohwedder, head of the Treuhandanstalt, the perfect capitalist victim. Now authorities worry that they are recruiting jobless Stasi specialists.
What everyone knows is that current progress in every area depends on Bonn's deep pockets. Final integration is many years and hundreds of billions of deutschemarks ahead. Westerners will have to be patient and generous, not only for their cousins in eastern Germany but also for recovery in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The rest of the world will have to understand that Germany successful is far preferable to Germany failing. A bureaucrat in Bonn who understands the stakes captured them in a phrase. ''Pray for us,'' he said.
Henry L. Trewhitt teaches at the University of New Mexico. He was formerly The Sun's German correspondent and diplomatic correspondent.