WASHINGTON — In national elections last Sunday, Germans, for the first time since World War II, ousted a sitting chancellor. Helmut Kohl's 16-year reign over both German politics and the evolution of Europe has come to an end. The chancellor-elect, Gerhard Schroeder, will lead the Social Democrats back to power, testing the ability of Germany's new left to guide a country in the midst of profound social change and a continent in the midst of geopolitical transformation.
Schroeder's victory and the rise of the Social Democrats are unlikely to produce radical changes in domestic or foreign policies. As in the United States and Britain, Germany's left has moved to the center. Moreover, the election was about people, not ideas. Schroeder won primarily because he was not Kohl.
Despite the likelihood of continuity in German policy, however, Kohl's departure from Europe's largest democracy will send shock waves across the continent and the Atlantic. Kohl, in close cooperation with successive U.S. leaders, presided over the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany and the integration of Europe. He did so with tact and without bluster, a must in a Europe that, for historical reasons, still fears German power. Because U.S. leadership will be in short supply thanks to President Bill Clinton's domestic woes, Schroeder must not only fill Kohl's shoes, but he must pick up the slack left over from a wounded America. The key question is whether Schroeder is up to the task of providing the leadership so sorely needed to guide Europe's evolution and help stabilize the world economy without raising new fears about German ambition.
Since the 1950s, partnership with Europe's democracies has anchored U.S. relations with the outside world. European integration has, over time, succeeded in removing geopolitical rivalry among Europe's major states, enabling them to cooperate not just with each other, but also with Washington. Even as German power increased and the country unified after the fall of communism, Germany remained deeply embedded in a peaceful Europe.
Kohl is in large part responsible. His genius lay in an ability to lead without appearing to do so. The excessive geopolitical ambition that Germany demonstrated under Adolf Hitler has made both Germans and their neighbors phobic about German power. The paradox is that Germany is the continent's most influential state, and Europe's continuing experiment with political and economic integration through the European Union depends on the exercise of German leadership.
Kohl deftly navigated this dilemma by embedding German power and leadership in something bigger than the German state. He successfully convinced Germans that their national interests were aligned with those of a broader Europe. Before taking any major initiative, Kohl made sure that Germany's European partners--France, in particular--were on board. In the eyes of the German public and its neighbors, the European Union, not Germany, was in command. But behind the scenes, Kohl was at the helm.
Schroeder faces formidable challenges as he seeks to forge a brand of leadership that satisfies both the constraints of the past and the demands of the future. Generational change is producing a German electorate somewhat more comfortable with the exercise of German power. Younger Germans, precisely because they did not live through World War II and its aftermath, do not share Kohl's visceral aversion to the open pursuit of national interests. It is no accident that during the campaign, both Kohl's party, the Christian Democrats, and Schroeder's attempted to woo voters by emphasizing German, not just European, power.
Next year's move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin will further complicate matters. Bonn's unassuming and bucolic setting contrasts sharply with Berlin's imposing grandeur. The return to Berlin is meant to symbolize Germany's return to normality, readiness to move beyond the past and ability to govern responsibly from the city that spawned the horrors of World War II.
The international community should welcome Germany's gradual emergence as a normal power, one that wields influence and takes on responsibility commensurate with its size and wealth. Indeed, the United States needs a Germany that is more comfortable with itself and more willing to help provide international leadership.
But it is by no means clear that Schroeder is the right man to manage this nuanced shift in the German polity and the character of its power. He has virtually no experience in foreign affairs. Out of power for 16 years, his party did not bother to cultivate a cohort of specialists schooled in statecraft. Unlike Kohl, Schroeder is not in complete command of his party. He shares power with the left-leaning Oskar Lafontaine, making it almost impossible for Schroeder to replicate Kohl's single-handed mastery of Germany's internal and external affairs.