"His Eternality" is how the leader of Germany's Greens once referred to him. Indeed, Helmut Kohl has led his country for 15 years, the longest tenure of any chancellor this century. Reagan, Thatcher, and Mitterrand, who shared the international stage with him when he took office in 1982, are all history. But the determined Bundeskanzler, 67, has announced that he will run for yet another four-year term, his fifth, in September 1998.

By far the senior leader among the industrialized nations, Kohl dominates German and European politics more than any chancellor since World War II. He made possible the rapid yet smooth achievement of German unity seven years ago. He arrogates an air of indispensability in the next great project, the creation of a single currency for the European Union (EU), which he is promoting as the one sure way to permanently embed Germany in an irreversibly united Europe. And ever since he backed deployment of American missiles in Germany at the start of his first term, which his predecessor Helmut Schmidt was unable to do, Kohl has presented himself as essential to maintaining Germany's alliance with the United States.

Despite his air of confident irreplaceability and his historic achievement of unification, there is a whiff of failure in Bonn's autumn air, a hint that the Kohl era is drawing to a close. The chancellor is facing complex domestic economic problems for which his political talents seem unsuited and with which his tired and ineffective ministers of finance and economics are manifestly incapable of dealing. These include a persistent economic performance gap between eastern and western Germany; structural unemployment of nearly 12 percent, the highest since the 1930s; and high social benefits that make both problems harder to deal with because they undermine the competitiveness of an economy dependent on exports.

THE TOWERING OAK

Kohl's long tenure typifies Germany's astonishing political continuity. From 1949, when the Federal Republic was established, until 1990, when it unified with the once-communist east, there were but two changes of power: in 1969, when Willy Brandt's Social Democratic Party (SPD) came in, and in 1982, when Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) took power back from Helmut Schmidt's SPD. Even unification's tremors did not shake up the system; seven years later, the chancellor and most of his ministers are still in place.

Kohl's down-to-earth persona appeals to voters as the embodiment of German middle-class solidity -- and at six foot four and at least two hundred ninety pounds, the chancellor is a substantial embodiment. Monumentally self-confident he is, but not necessarily beloved; he consistently scores low among the top 20 German politicians in Der Spiegel's monthly popularity ratings. But, he makes clear, Germans can count on him and be sure where he stands -- a towering oak in any storm, as the traditional German metaphor has it.

If for Germans Kohl embodies a comforting reliability, for foreigners he represents Germany's lack of aggressiveness. This is a chancellor who invites visiting heads of state to join him in stowing away platefuls of the Rheinpfalz specialty stuffed sow belly, follows it up with caramel pudding, and settles back in his cardigan to negotiate treaties of cooperation. Nothing could be further from Prussian spiked helmets, not to speak of Nazi jackboots.

But far more than empathy with voters or geniality with foreign leaders, the chancellor's iron grip on his party accounts for his longevity. In a country where the political parties overlie and often corrupt the functioning of all three branches of government, Kohl has managed the CDU assiduously, paternalistically, and, if need be, ruthlessly. It has been his life since he joined at 16, in 1946. He worked his way up its ranks, became its chairman 24 years ago, modernized it during the 1970s, and has motivated and mobilized it in six national and more than half a hundred state elections since. His dominance in the party has been unchallenged for a decade, and he has sidelined nascent rivals. Then, too, the opposition has failed to produce an opponent anywhere near a match for him: he has knocked off four successive Social Democratic candidates for the chancellorship.

Kohl's domestic record has been decidedly modest; he tends to stand pat and wait out problems. But he achieved superbly the one big thing: German unification in 1990, a dream most West Germans had forgotten or learned to distrust. And he managed it without violence or threats, and on the best possible conditions for his country: acceptance by all Germany's neighbors and the Soviet Union, withdrawal of the 380,000 Soviet troops in East Germany, and continued membership in the Western organizations to which the Federal Republic had belonged, most significantly NATO. For the first time, the now unified nation encounters only friends and allies on its borders. With 82 million inhabitants, Germany is once again what it was before World War I and during World War II, by far the strongest power in Europe.

THE UNION TO END ALL WARS

In the final sentence of his recent memoir, I Wanted Germany's Unity, Kohl sets out as his next grand objective what he has called the other side of the coin of German unification -- Europe's unification. Since 1990, Kohl has run the main lines of foreign policy out of the chancellery, and his overriding concern has been advancing the integration of Europe through introduction of a common European currency, the euro, and creation of European Monetary Union (EMU) by 1999. It is ironic that a chancellor who disdains economics has chosen a dauntingly complicated and sensitive economic instrument, exchange-rate manipulation, to promote the political cause. But, Kohl declares, he has staked his "political existence" on European unity. It is "a question of war and peace," he says.

The issue is dear to his heart partly because of his background. Kohl hails from the Palatinate, a region on the west bank of the Rhine bordering France, frequently ravaged by French armies in centuries past. Growing up and recruiting for the CDU in what was the French zone of occupation after 1945, Kohl instinctively shared Konrad Adenauer's desire for reconciliation with the "historical enemy," as well as their party's enthusiasm for European integration and its lukewarm feelings toward the nation-state. He is attuned to Gallic sensitivities about Teutonic power and has always given the French every reassurance that it would never again be turned against them.

Thus Kohl's first priority after German unification changed the balance of power on the continent was strengthening Germany's commitment to European union. The chancellor paid France's price for its assent to unification -- renewal of the promise to "Europeanize" German power and, now, its greatest strength, the deutsche mark. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which incorporated Kohl's concessions, laid out a clear path to monetary union and beyond. With the treaty, Kohl deliberately circumscribed the policy options of the united country and offered to sacrifice its enviably stable currency to make plain that German unity would bring no reversion to German nationalism.

HOW DEEP THE CRISIS?

Whether Germany's current economic ills will accelerate Kohl's departure remains an open question. A debate is just beginning on how serious the problems are and how fundamental the reforms to deal with them need to be. Many believe that only changes at the margins are necessary, that incrementalism is the tried and still true way to proceed in Germany, and that changes such as more flexible wage agreements, restructuring by big corporations, and an increase in the number of small businesses are already well under way. They point out that the economy continues to maintain high living standards and generous social benefits, accumulate capital, generate large export surpluses, and subsidize eastern Germany to the tune of about $100 billion a year -- all at the same time. These believers insist that Kohl's admonitions to Germans to roll up their sleeves and get to work will be enough.

Another school, more vocal but probably not larger, sees the worst crisis in 50 years confronting the country, bemoans the lack of innovative solutions among the political class, and calls for basic reforms -- less regulation, more competition, faster privatization of state-owned industry, larger cutbacks in social benefits, and, above all, streamlining of muscle-bound government. Few of these critics would adopt American-style capitalism. They recall, however, that ten years ago Germany's system was a model for other countries; even five years ago the first Clinton administration looked to it for approaches it might borrow; today, foreigners take Schadenfreude in Germany's economic woes.

If innovation, flexibility, and prompt, rigorous reform are what is required, then Kohl, a hesitater and standpatter, hardly seems the right chancellor for the times. His fractious coalition government has but a 12-vote majority in the 672-seat lower house, the Bundestag, while the opposition SPD has a correspondingly slim one in the upper house, the Bundesrat, where Germany's states are represented. The ideology and institutions of Germany's "social market" economy and constitutional system pose formidable barriers to deep-cutting reform. Remembering Hitler's centralization of power, the drafters of the postwar constitution built a variety of vertical and horizontal divisions into a federalist system that shares out power, compels consensus, and discourages rapid executive decisions. Older voters -- and there are many in this aging country -- are security fetishists, resistant to change and attached to the welfare state that served them so well from the 1950s through the 1980s. The system's very success in the past works against its reform today.

If he remains unwilling or unable to act and the economy fails to generate many more jobs, Kohl's eternality as chancellor may well end soon. Polls are showing slightly over 50 percent support for the SPD and Greens combined, with about 40 percent for the Christian Democrats and their two coalition partners, the Bavarian Christian Social Union and the Free Democrats. Although polls are far less predictive of election outcomes in Germany than in the United States, such figures encourage the SPD not to lift a finger to help the chancellor before the vote next September. The Social Democrats' admittedly tough task is to convince electors that they will be more modern than Kohl without sacrificing his commitment to the core tenets of the German welfare state model.

Like Bill Clinton, Kohl has staged remarkable comebacks. One of his great strengths has been the readiness of opponents and the media to underestimate him and declare him politically dead. Moreover, the German constitution makes replacing a head of government difficult. But it is not too early to consider what may happen once Kohl has gone.

LOOKING BOTH WAYS

All German chancellors for the last 40 years have cultivated relationships with France and the United States in equal measure. For most of that time, the relationship with Washington was based on anticommunism and the necessity of defending against a Soviet threat that seemed imminent. With Russia weak and out of Central Europe, that necessity disappears, and ties to France and the EU assume primacy.

Whether Kohl remains or is replaced, Germany will continue to focus on its relationship with France because it is at the core of European integration, the top priority for all postwar chancellors, especially Adenauer and Schmidt. Since 1990, moreover, Kohl has fostered a climate in Germany in which any opposition to his plans for the single currency is politically incorrect -- suspect as "anti-European," nationalistic, even warmongering. So ingrained has Europeanism become among German voters, and so well-established is the idea of EMU among German banks, business, unions, and the media, that adoption of the euro and disappearance of the deutsche mark seem certain, very likely on Kohl's schedule. Even though some Land (state) prime ministers have called for postponement of monetary union, no SPD opponent will dare run against Kohl on an anti-European platform. And if Kohl loses, his successor will surely continue the pro-French and pro-European policies pursued by every chancellor since World War II.

Stamped by memories of America's generosity toward defeated Germany after the war, its readiness to champion German rehabilitation in the 1950s, and its unquestioning support for unification seven years ago, Kohl has infused the bilateral relationship with nostalgic sentimentality. His replacement by a leader from a younger generation will inevitably attenuate the connection. Additionally, the common front against the Soviet Union that once subordinated differences is no more. Germany's concentration on moving European integration ahead, and American attention to Latin America, the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, and now Central Asia -- areas where the interests of Germany, a regional European power, are minor -- mean that the United States and the Federal Republic will work together less frequently. Commercial disputes with a political coloration, such as over German companies' dealings with Libya and Iran, seem likely to trouble relations more than before. Germany has long been a premier exporting nation, and exports are of growing importance for the United States. A half-century after World War II and the Holocaust, Germany can be expected to pursue its national interest with far greater self-confidence and a lesser burden of inherited guilt for Hitler's crimes -- even when this creates differences with Washington.

No matter who is chancellor, the best hope of keeping the United States and Germany close lies in the expansion of NATO and attendant policies in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, such as the Partnership for Peace and operations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as joint efforts in Bosnia. Germany and the United States are the only NATO members with an activist policy throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and their interests in the region are congruent. They both are keenly aware of the need to take account of Russia's security interests as NATO enlarges. In the 1991-95 lead-up to their involvement in Bosnia, their reactions were remarkably similar.

NATO's eastward expansion is the sort of big project that should keep Washington and Berlin working together for years to come. For centuries Eastern Europe has been Germany's backyard, and it will only seem nearer when the move of the capital to Berlin is completed toward the end of the century. Poland is key to Germany's continuing eastern policy. Reconciliation with Warsaw was a prime goal for SPD chancellors in the 1970s; Kohl has followed that approach, and any successor will do the same.

Helmut Kohl has been around so long that it is hard to imagine German and European politics without him. His departure, whenever it comes, will be so significant because he is the last German leader for whom personal experience with the Nazis and World War II and its aftermath actively motivates political conduct. His particular skills and talents were essential to the peaceful unification of his country. They are valuable, if hardly irreplaceable, in maintaining Germany's intimate relationship with France and promoting European union. They are largely irrelevant, however, to the geopolitical and economic trends that are putting more distance between the United States and the Federal Republic, as well as to the projects in the east that hold the most promise of keeping the United States and Germany closely aligned.

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  • Robert Gerald Livingston established the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at The Johns Hopkins University in 1982 and directed it until 1996. He is currently writing a book about the politics of the United States' relationship with Germany.
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