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Herr Fischer Goes to Washington

MUNICH: His party, the Greens, once stood for pacifism and ecology. He was once a stone-throwing, radical, street-fighting man. Now Joschka Fischer sports elegant three-piece suits, lays wreaths at the tombs of unknown soldiers and, as foreign minister, represents Germany to the world. That transformation will be scrutinized in his forthcoming visit to a skeptical America.

Since Helmut Kohl's semi-eternal government was voted out of power last year, Fischer has become the surprising symbol for continuity and European commitment in German diplomacy. Although his party received a mere 7% of the vote, Fischer defines the framework within which Germany's international objectives are formulated. Even Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who suggested in a series of throw-away remarks that his government would steer a different, more assertive course, now tows the line Fischer has tied.

Schroder's early remarks suggested a real change in German foreign policy. The special relationship with France? Perhaps it should be turned into a triangle involving Britain. Commitment to European integration? Fine, but first a big reduction in Germany's financial contribution. Enlargement of the EU to include Central Europe? All right in principle, but let's wait. At any rate, Germany would pursue a foreign policy in line with national self-interest. The new Chancellor, whose previous job as a provincial premier had not given him much exposure to international affairs was, at the beginning of his tenure, very much at sea.

Since then he has been learning fast, with Fischer writing the script. In an impressive tour de force before the European Parliament last January as President of the EU's Council of Ministers, the radical-turned-diplomat put things in order again. History, said Fischer, had long decided that enlargement would occur. Only the how and when now needed to be tackled. Because, after the Balkan wars it would be irresponsible to permit a zone of instability along EU frontiers, Germany favors enlargement without delay.