A One-Man Charm Offensive

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The happiest man in the new German government spent last week beaming his impish smile at America. When Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister and Green Party leader, wasn't sharing fond memories of kindly G.I.s with American reporters, he was searching for a "window of opportunity" to fly to Washington. The smart money on both sides of the Atlantic had him as peacemaker. Gerhard Schröder may have created this breach but he wasn't going to heal it — he couldn't get close enough to apologize to George W. Bush, and even if he could, talking through translators just wouldn't do. That left the job to Fischer, who had already won the election for Schröder — his Green Party's 8.6% put the coalition over the top last week — and now was ready to win the peace. His hand in setting the political agenda of the new government has been strengthened, and within the Green Party — an uneasy alliance of environmentalists, peaceniks and pure-food activists — the dominance of his centrist wing now seems assured. No wonder he's smiling.

Fischer, 54, may be Germany's most talented politician, but his role is not without its contradictions and challenges. His unrivaled personal appeal (81% approval) helps sustain a party whose stalwarts are ideologically opposed to personality-based politics. He is a staunchly pro-American voice, but many Greens remain deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions — not only on the question of war but on such issues as Washington's opposition to the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto treaty on global warming. A onetime student radical who was photographed kicking a policeman during a 1973 demonstration, but who has long since traded his jeans for three-piece Italian suits, Fischer leads a historically pacifist party, but managed to persuade its pragmatic wing to support the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and to send troops to Afghanistan last year. (In 1999 a protester at the party meeting hit Fischer on the head with a balloon filled with red paint to show his anger over Fischer's support for war). His popularity increased when he quit smoking and took up running, shedding pounds and writing a 1999 best seller about his experience.

What does Fischer get in return for twice saving Schröder's skin? He says he is not shopping for more seats in the cabinet. "We were not elected for more posts," he told Time. "We were elected for a very dynamic reform policy in the economy, in labor markets and in the welfare system. It's all about modernizing our welfare state."

That won't be easy, since the ruling coalition's slender majority will make it hard to pass the kind of reform the economy needs to get back on track. The Social Democrats, who draw support from Germany's big labor unions, have in the past blocked reforms such as cutting unemployment benefits or making it easier to lay off workers. "We tried several times to push forward on this but the spd always rejected it," says Rezzo Schlauch, another leading Green in parliament. Fischer's new power may give him a chance to break that logjam, but if he is serious about trying, the battles to come will make the U.S.-Germany argument of the past week look like the most minor of spats. They could even wipe that smile off Fischer's face.