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Genscher - hero or villain? Dean of West's foreign ministers gives his answer. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, once reviled as a turncoat, today is West Germany's most popular politician. Many view him as a strategist who is so skilled at building consensus that he leads by appearing to follow public opinion.

The indefatigable Hans-Dietrich Genscher, midnight dancer, master of the German art form of the political jibe in Carnival revelry, possessor of outstanding ears that cartoonists love, and dean of the West's foreign ministers, enjoys his job. He says he will quit the instant it ceases to be fun. No West German is holding his breath.

Depending on one's point of view, Genscher is either hero or, if not villain, at least something of a chameleon. He is a survivor, both personally and as a leader of the small Liberal Party that is under constant threat of extinction, yet for two decades has been kingmaker in Bonn. He is now the most popular politician around. But a few years back, when he led the Liberals out of a center-left into a center-right coalition, he was widely reviled as a turncoat. Typically, Der Spiegel magazine then featured a cover montage of him with a forked tongue.

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Genscher still arouses strong mistrust as well as strong admiration.

Fans praise his vision in steering a steady pro-black Africa, pro-Europe, pro-West, and pro-d'etente policy past the abundant domestic political shoals during his 14 years in office.

Critics - especially party allies he has ruthlessly dumped - regard him as utterly opportunistic. And some United States and West European officials say they feel uneasy about Genscher's current skittishness on nuclear issues. US Senator William Cohen (R) of Maine, at a military conference in Munich two months ago, warned against ``Genscherism,'' or an emphasis on negotiating away short-range nuclear missiles to the exclusion of necessary modernization of NATO's arsenal.

So is Genscher just a shrewd tactician who preaches strategy as a cover for his maneuvering? Or is he a strategist who is so skilled at building consensus that he leads by appearing to follow public opinion?

In a wide-ranging interview, Genscher described his policies with a stress on the strategic rather than the tactical. He exhibits some impatience with nuclear and military wrangling and prefers to talk about the kind of leadership Europe and the West as a whole should offer the world.

``For me it's too little - and we would be limiting impermissibly the possibilities and our responsibilities - if we thought only in military categories, as important as this is and however much the alliance originated there. This alliance wouldn't have kept its vitality for so long if it had been only that. Actually, it's much more. But this much more has to be brought to expression.''

The particular expression he advocates is getting on with freeing up Europe's internal market by 1992, as advocated by the European Community (EC) - and providing economic and ethical leadership for humanity.

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``The time has come when we must press forward with a decisive process of European unification so that we can develop the power of 320 million consumers. Therefore I am of the opinion that we need clear progress in currency and financial policies: a monetary union and a European central bank,'' he asserted.

``We have in the European Community really great reserves of growth for the world economy. All that we're doing now to keep the economy going or to stimulate it is relatively little ... in comparison with the effect the EC internal market could have.''

He continued, ``I believe an important task is not to reduce the European-American relationship to a military alliance alone, but to regard it as a partnership for the future in the sense of responsibility for the world economy, to see what we can do to develop human society by giving examples of what free societies can offer, working together to overcome the challenges to humanity, for example, of a world disease like AIDS,'' and averting ``an ethical catastrophe'' through misuse of gene technology.

In retrospect, Genscher sees his own contributions in almost a decade and a half as foreign minister as pioneering a coherent German approach to aiding development in the Third World, revitalizing the whole idea of European union (along with then Italian Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo) implementing the deployment of new NATO intermediate-range (INF) missiles in the mid-'80s, and keeping a steady course of detente with the East.

Both friend and foe would acknowledge his early leadership in these areas. He made a name for himself in third world policy well before it became a popular cause. He breasted the skepticism of those who thought that Europe had run out of steam to push through the declaratory Single European Act of 1985. A year ago he was a harbinger of current US policy in calling for the West to test seriously Gorbachev's profession of ``new thinking'' in foreign policy.

Less expected - for coming from the mouth of someone who has had to battle hard for various policies - is Genscher's philosophy of foreign relations.

It emphasizes today's web of long-term commitments and interrelationships, and leaves virtually no room for discretionary choice.

``Many things in foreign policy are prescribed for all states. That is nothing special'' for West Germany, he asserted. He explicitly regarded even the US as subject to such constraints. When asked how this thesis could explain the lurches as between a President Jimmy Carter and a President Ronald Reagan, he denied there were differences between the two, except for ``verbal'' ones.

Applying his maxim to his own country, he commented that the ``basic facts that no country can divorce itself from,'' along with Germany's history and geography, impose a special demand for steadiness and consistency on german foreign policy. ``German foreign policy has to be especially reliable and predictable. It can hardly afford any wobbling, zigzags, or blowing hot and cold.

``The interesting thing is that people sense this in this country. The support for my foreign policy is connected with this fact. People don't want any experiments. They want to know where they stand.'' And he said people stand firmly with the Western democracies.

Genscher says West Germany's penchant for stability manifests itself in the closing of ranks after the bitter fight over INF deployment.

``What I find interesting is that people who previously [even] rejected NATO, including some Greens [Party], are now letting this issue rest. I'm not sure if in some cases this is being done out of real conviction, or whether it's not in many cases also out of calculation that people won't accept such a line. But that in itself is evidence of what the basic attitude is in this country.''

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