WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Germany's recent unilateral move on the recognition of Croatia surprised and disappointed many of Bonn's closest friends. High-level French officials have raised questions about whether leaders of the German government are ''good Europeans'' after all. The British have accused the Germans of ''arm-twisting'' in Brussels. And American officials have spoken of a ''new German assertiveness'' that may be ''difficult to stomach.''
Allied officials seem genuinely surprised that, after all these years as half of the Franco-German heart of the European Community and as the U.S.' strongest NATO ally on the European continent, Germany would actually pursue an independent policy -- especially after an EC coalition, a personal representative of the U.N. secretary general and a high-level official of the U.S. State Department had warned that early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia might make the violence worse.
Hadn't the German government led the drive for common EC foreign and military policies? Why then was Germany sacrificing EC unity to a unilateral policy of early recognition? Hadn't Germany joined in plans to constitute a Franco-German ''core'' of a Western European Union? Why then had Germany proceeded in this important matter independent of its French partners? Hadn't Germany opposed a general right for EC members to opt out of Community policies, only to be the first to opt out of an EC process afterward?
It was, as the German newsweekly Der Spiegel put it, ''the first time since 1949 that Bonn took a unilateral action in foreign policy.'' Why now?
Clearly, there are several reasons that the German chancellor Helmut Kohl and foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher told their EC colleagues Germany would not feel bound by Community views on Yugoslavia, and would announce its recognition of Croatia on December 19 whatever the EC partners decided.
The first reason for this new German independence is, of course, the fact that German reunification is now complete. Once reunification was achieved, German officials lost their overwhelming need to calm other governments' anxieties about
resurgent German power.
The second reason is geopolitical. Proximity, historical ties and a habit of vacationing in Yugoslavia gave Germans a special concern about Croatia and Slovenia and has kept the issues of civil war and violence near the top of the German agenda. For similar reasons, Italy and Austria have also adopted policies like those of Germany's. All three have a special need for stable democratic governments in what was Yugoslavia.
The third reason for Germany breaking ranks is surely the demonstrated inability of the EC or the U.N. to stop the determined aggression of Serbian Communists against Croatia
Germany's action in recognizing Croatia was hardly precipitous. The war began last June, when Yugoslav armies acted to block Croatian independence. The EC has been seeking a settlement ever since. The U.N. and U.S. have also worked on it to no avail.
The central Yugoslav army (overwhelmingly Serbian) has wrought terrible violence on the Croatian people. Thousands have died. Many more thousands have become refugees in their own land.
The French secretary of state for humanitarian affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said of the central government's attack on Dubrovnik, ''It would be indecent to permit this massacre.'' But the massacre has been permitted.
The shelling of Dubrovnik and the deliberate murder of civilians have continued. A succession of cease-fires has been negotiated and violated -- most of them by Serbian ''irregulars'' who are being rapidly integrated into the ''central'' armies.
The French weekly L'Express graphically described the destruction of the Croatian town Vukovar after it surrendered unconditionally to vastly superior ''Yugoslav'' forces. The Economist also vividly described the massacre at Vocin, where on December 13 Serbian militia shot at least 39 unarmed villagers in cold blood. Still, the call for ''even-handedness'' was repeated.
But the determined effort to destroy Croatia has not been an ethnic squabble to which the world should remain aloof and neutral. It has not been simply a conflict between warring nationalities.
It is a good thing that the German government distinguished between the more powerful, undemocratic Serbs determined to maintain control by violence and the Croats seeking to exercise democratic self-determination. It is a good thing that the German government went forward with recognition of Croatia in the face of the incapacity of the EC, the U.N. and the U.S. to bring an end to the fighting.