West German officials are playing down the impact that a united Germany will have on future European politics. They point out that after unification the Federal Republic will only have added an extra 16 million people to its current population of 60 million and that East Germany will comprise only one third of the territory of a united Germany.

But the focus on demographics and geography misses the point. Unification will have a tremendous psychological impact on the population. It will finally fulfill the postwar German dream of emancipation from being an occupied, divided country with less than full sovereignty because of what the Nazis wrought. After unification, the Germans believe that they can put World War II behind them and at last resume their place as sovereign equal of other European states.

Once Germany is united, its role in NATO cannot remain the same. NATO, after all, was founded for the purpose of double containment -- to contain the Soviet Union and to integrate Germany by anchoring its western half firmly within the West. It has accomplished its original mission and has also established a long-term American presence on the European continent. NATO, as it is currently structured, may be too limited an organization to provide the necessary institutional framework to guarantee European security after unification.

Today the West supports a united Germany's remaining in NATO because it naturally prefers to preserve its own successful creation. Most East European countries also endorse this view. The Soviet position on Germany and NATO has evolved quite dramatically over the past two months from insistence on neutrality to the proposal that after unification the Federal Republic will remain in NATO and its eastern part will retain an ''associate membership'' in the Warsaw Pact for a transitional period.

The current Western proposal is that, after unification, Soviet troops will remain on East German soil and no NATO troops will be stationed there. The West German government has even offered to pay for the upkeep of Soviet troops in the East, providing Moscow eventually withdraws them.

But the specter of Germany paying for Soviet and American troops has an air of unreality about it and has led some Germans to question why they should remain in NATO once unification has been achieved. Public opinion polls suggest skepticism about the need for NATO in both parts of Germany.

The East German revolution of 1989 was about self-determination and liberation from foreign domination. The majority of East Germans favor a demilitarized, neutral country. In the Federal Republic, a quarter of the population favors neutrality, and only half the population supports a united Germany remaining in NATO.

We may not like the fact, but Germans are beginning to ask who it is that the Soviet and American troops on their soil will be protecting them from in the future. They suspect it is none other than themselves, and this realization is causing growing resentment against what is perceived as an unacceptable infringement on their sovereignty after unification.

Currently the United States and its allies are trying to revamp NATO away from the stress on its military role to make it more palatable to the Soviets. But it would be more productive if they focused on the security architecture of a new Europe beyond NATO. The Germans, their European Community partners, the East Europeans and Soviets all look to the CSCE process -- the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- as the harbinger of a future all-European security system. The United States remains skeptical about CSCE because it is a large and unwieldy organization and because each of its 35 member states has an equal voice and veto. How could a security system function if Malta has the same weight as the United States or the Soviet Union or indeed the new Germany?

As it now operates, CSCE is not a viable alternative to NATO. But the coming NATO summit could start restructuring it in such a way as to provide acceptable security guarantees and organizational mechanisms for all member states. It would also have to devise a workable system for integrating its members' military forces. Such a security system, combined with a strong, politically integrated European Community, could successfully anchor Germany to ensure that it could not again threaten the peace and stability of Europe. A restructured, stronger CSCE will also guarantee the United States a major role in Europe in the next century.

The writer is associate professor of government at Georgetown University.