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Germany's New Leaders: Fast Start in First Big Test

Continuity on role with NATO in Kosovo shows a surprisingly smooth transition.

On the face of it, the threat of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia came at the worst possible moment for Germany's political establishment.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl is heading a lame-duck government after last month's election loss. And Chancellor-elect Gerhard Schrder, whose Social Democrats are hammering out a coalition with the Greens party, will not take office until the end of October.

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Germany's old and new leaders, however, have been quick to present the outside world with continuity in foreign policy.

Joschka Fischer, who is set to become foreign minister in Mr. Schrder's new government, is working hard to allay fears that the traditional pacifism of his Greens party will put Germany on an errant course.

"No to a German Sonderweg," Mr. Fischer recently told reporters, using the German expression for an exceptional course in foreign policy.

Long burdened by its actions in World War II, Germany is now seeking a more self-assured role in Europe. With Schrder, the first chancellor with no memories of the war is taking power, leaving much of the emotional baggage of Mr. Kohl's generation behind.

"The transition from [US President] Bush to Clinton - from the World War II generation to the Vietnam generation - is similar to the change in Germany," says Franz-Josef Meiers of the German Society for Foreign Policy in Bonn.

When the Bundestag, or parliament, debated sending troops to Bosnia as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission three years ago, many Germans opposed sending soldiers abroad. Today, when the old parliament convenes for a last, extraordinary session, it is expected to grant solid approval for German warplanes to take part in a NATO mission over Kosovo, if needed.

"A new German self-confidence is not a question of the new government or of Schrder, it was already demonstrated before the elections," says Mr. Meiers. Next year's launch of the common European currency and the European Union's expansion eastward are both projects that the old government promoted relentlessly.

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"Kohl saw European integration as a way to prevent another war," says Meiers. "The successor generation views integration less as a matter of war and peace but takes it for granted. Now it's a question of how much integration will benefit our national interests, for example our farmers or our budget."

Kohl's government broke the cold-war-era taboo on German military missions abroad. Against the backdrop of Nazi aggression in World War II, the German Army was constitutionally limited to self-defense. But after the country's unification in 1990, Germany's allies expected more active contributions.

In 1993, German military personnel participated in a UN mission in Somalia. A year later the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that it was legal for the armed forces to take part in NATO and UN operations abroad.

The most bitter opposition came from the Greens far-left wing, which even today objects to Germany's peacekeeping contingent in Bosnia.

While both Schrder and Fischer have indicated that representatives of their parties can vote on the Kosovo mission according to their conscience, the chancellor-elect warned that "there is no question that in the future the coalition must vote together. It's clear that this is an absolute exception."

Foreign-policy expert Meiers warns of the possibility of future problems. "I'm very doubtful that there'll be as much unanimity as in the old government coalition," he says. "I don't think there will be the consensus that Schrder demands."

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