The just concluded deal of the half century between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev will probably be remembered as the instrument of Soviet surrender in the Cold War. Gorbachev agreed to the transfer of East Germany, whole, to the Western Alliance. We and the Communists split Korea. They got Indochina. In 1977, we even had a straight swap of Ethiopia for Somalia. But all these contests pale beside the transfer to the West, for cash and a few draft choices, of Russia's great World War II prize, its German buffer state.

This surrender marks a unique historical phenomenon, which might be called the moment of unipolarity. The bipolar world in which the real power emanated only from Moscow and Washington is dead. The multipolar world to which we are headed, in which power will emanate from Berlin and Tokyo, Beijing and Brussels, as well as Washington and Moscow, is struggling to be born. The transition between these two worlds is now, and it won't last long. But the instant in which we are living is a moment of unipolarity, where world power resides in one reasonably coherent, serenely dominant, entity: the Western alliance, unchallenged and not yet (though soon to be) fractured by victory.

The West's ability to dictate the future of Germany (as late as March Gorbachev declared a united Germany in NATO "absolutely out of the question") is only the most dramatic manifestation of its dominance. Unipolarity is felt all over the world, as far away as, say, Syria. This week's reconciliation of President Assad of Syria (Soviet ally) with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (American ally) is a direct result of the end of Cold War bipolarity. Syria cannot play East against West, East having resigned the game. Unable to rely on the Soviet bloc in its struggle with Iraq and Israel, Syria, by accommodating Egypt, is making a move toward the West, the one remaining allocator of geopolitical goods.

The unipolar moment will be brief. By year's end, Germany will not only be fully sovereign but a free agent in the international arena. The shape of multipolar things to come became apparent at the Houston economic summit. Germany tried to get the alliance to give aid to the Soviet Union. The United States vetoed the idea. But Germany, now the dominant European power outside Russia, will proceed with its own Soviet aid program.

Japan did the same, though, as usual, with less flair than its old Axis partner. It proposed the lifting of some Western sanctions against China. That too was shot down as alliance policy. But the Japanese, asserting their regional independence and dominance, are proceeding with their own aid to China.

Germany is emerging as the regional superpower in Europe, as is Japan in Asia. Nonetheless the current laments about the eclipse of America are premature. (After another decade or two of impoverishing deficits, however, they won't be.) The United States remains the world's only global superpower. The Kohl-Gorbachev agreement was exactly in accord with the blueprint for the new Europe devised by the Bush administration after the fall of the Berlin Wall: a unified Germany within a NATO reconfigured to be less threatening to a defunct Warsaw Pact.

Moreover, the crux of the Soviet-German agreement is that Germany remain tied to the Atlantic Alliance. Another way of stating this is that the Soviet Union and Germany have agreed that their security, and Europe's, require the continued presence on the continent of the United States. That is no mean achievement.

What makes the United States the universal choice for European stabilizer and German babysitter is that the United States is the only Atlantic or European power not viscerally afraid of Germany. Americans are able to view with some equanimity the reemergence of Germany as the dominant power in Europe. Americans find European fears of Germany understandable but still irrational. We see no prospect, as does erstwhile Thatcher trade minister Nicholas Ridley, of the Hun running wild. Moreover, it is hard to fathom what is the danger, other than to pride, of a German economy that dominates the continent. Bundesbank dominance already exists. Moreover, its effect on neighboring economies -- helping to restrain inflation, for example -- has been most salutary.

The real danger in Germany's rebirth lies in the realm of psychology. German unification is reawakening ancient fears, reviving now obsolete intra-European Realpolitik and returning Europe to the shifting alliance system that had been forcibly suppressed during the Cold War.

Last March, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held a meeting about the future of Germany with several British and American intellectuals. One of the ideas bruited about was the need for Britain to strengthen Russia as a counter to Germany. This recapitulation of an idea a century old (the Triple Entente, the British-French-Russian alliance that balanced a newly united Germany) is a chilling reminder of the power of memory.

The danger for Europe (and for us) is that these old memories will reproduce the old Realpolitik. Europe has grown too small for balance-of-power politics. Its revival would not just bring back the balkanized state system that brought Europe such grief in this century. It would wreck the current move toward European unity, Europe's only hope for transcending its fratricidal past.