Schroeder: Moving away from the stagnant years

October 12, 1998|By Robert Gerald Livingston

Germany's new chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder (54), came to Washington last week on the heels of an election victory that is the most decisive in the past 25 years. By voting out Helmut Kohl (68), Germans ended a political leadership stamped by World War II, Germany's recovery, the worst days of the Cold War, and by a deference to the United States that often verged on subservience. They are replacing it with a self-confident, assertive new generation of leaders, marked, like Mr. Clinton, by the 1960s rather than the immediate postwar period.

The United States has several reasons to welcome the election outcome, even if Mr. Clinton's old political friend and ally Mr. Kohl now exits the political stage.

Lingering doubts about the strength of German democracy have been finally and firmly put to rest. For the first time since World War II, Germans have voted out an incumbent government. Every previous change came about when one party in the governing coalition -- all German governments are coalitions -- defected; the voters did not initiate the change, as they did this time. The three far-right parties, which always seem to be a worry for American observers of the German scene, won less than 4 percent together.

Instead of the stagnation and hesitancy that characterized the last four years of Mr. Kohl's government, Germans expect Mr. Schroeder will tackle those economic problems that were the principal campaign issues: unemployment above all, which at 10.6 percent is the most pressing, but also the tax and labor market reforms that will be needed to impart additional dynamism to an economy that is showing encouraging signs of an upturn.

A strong German economy, coupled with a readiness to play a leading role in international financial bodies, is probably the main U.S. interest at a time of recession and turmoil in the markets of Asia, Latin America and Russia. Germany, whose banks have the largest foreign investments in Russia of any Western country, will likely be prodded by the Clinton administration to take on a bigger role in monitoring and assisting the Russian economy.

Relying on the "it's-time-for-a-change" feeling among voters as his chief argument, Mr. Schroeder carefully kept his campaign ,, promises to generalities. So it is uncertain what policies he may push, although this will become clearer once the government is formed by the end of the month.

He repeated that there would be no change in foreign policy, particularly in the close relationships with France and the United States. However, if the Greens are partners in the government -- and it is quite possible that their leader, Joschka Fischer, may become foreign minister -- there will be less emphasis on NATO as an instrument of foreign policy, and more stress on the need for U.N. backing for NATO military missions in such places as Kosovo.

Even more important for the United States is German strategy in international finance. Here differences may well arise. Ticketed as finance minister in Mr. Schroeder's government is Oscar Lafontaine, whose power as chairman of the SPD gives him as great political weight as Mr. Schroeder.

Mr. Lafontaine advocates a greater government role in the economy to cushion the impact of globalization on the working and middle class who constitute the core of his party's voters. He seems to favor French wishes for a political body to serve as a counterweight to the new European Central Bank and as a doctrine that will give equal weight in that bank's policy to fighting unemployment and inflation.

Mr. Schroeder's campaign slogan was unchallenging: "We will not do everything differently but many things better." The continuity implicit in these words will be comforting to Washington, for whom rock-solid relations with Germany constitute a pillar in a world where others are unwilling, like Japan, or too weak, like Great Britain, to play the supportive role that a weakened American president now needs more than ever.

Robert Gerald Livingston is a senior visiting fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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