Six years ago, during his first week in office, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also the leader of the country’s Green Party, made perfectly clear that he was “the foreign minister of Germany, not of the Greens” and that he would pursue a German, not a Green, foreign policy. Since then, he has not broken his word.

This has given dyed-in-the-wool Greens plenty to sulk about, and even grounds to quit the party altogether. For the direction of Germany’s foreign policy has, at times, looked to leftists more right wing than that of its conservative predecessor. Barely had Fischer moved into the foreign ministry when the new red-green leadership, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, enlisted Germany in the spring 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, the first time German troops had entered combat since World War II. Since then, German soldiers have been dispatched to Kosovo, Macedonia, Congo, Afghanistan, Kuwait and the Horn of Africa. (When the red-green coalition took office, there were German troops only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, a deployment that the then-opposition Greens had tried to block.) Germany is now, after the United States, the largest supplier of troops to peacekeeping missions worldwide.

For two decades, both on the streets and in the Bundestag, the German Greens have engaged with geopolitical issues, the moral crux of the matter for the left: post-Holocaust Germany’s proper place in the world. The Greens were born in 1980 amid nationwide demonstrations against the deployment of US nuclear missiles on German soil, and their foreign policy positions still reflect the spirit of those days. Their 1998 campaign platform called for a demilitarized Germany in a demilitarized Europe, an end to military conscription and the replacement of NATO with a pan-European security order. One strand that runs through the left’s critique is a deep distrust of the exercise of national power across state borders, and in particular of German power, which they fear could trigger the resurgence of a toxic nationalism. Like a reforming alcoholic, Germany still has to be kept away from the object of its addiction at all costs.

In contrast to Green positions on domestic issues, like the transport of nuclear waste and renewable energy initiatives, the Greens’ foreign policy agenda never underwent the moderating process of implementation. On the state level, where red-green coalitions had come to power across much of western Germany, the former “anti-party” party learned how to participate in parliamentary democracy: how to compromise, build consensus and implement policy. In the process, the Greens turned long left-wing wish lists into serviceable domestic policies, many of them adopted by the mainstream parties. But as the opposition in the federal arena, the Greens could stake out holier-than-thou stands on foreign affairs without risking anything.

No single example demonstrates the Greens’ uneasiness with Germany’s full-fledged debut on the world stage and the responsibilities that come with it than their mixed responses to the Balkan wars. As late as 1995, most Greens saw the participation of German troops in the peacekeeping mission planned for Bosnia as a fateful first step in the militarization of German foreign policy. By then, however, Fischer and a handful of other Green dissenters had reached very different conclusions. Germany, they reasoned–especially Germany–could not abdicate responsibility for a crisis of Bosnia’s magnitude. Ethnic cleansing was exactly the kind of barbarism that liberal Germans believed should never happen again in Europe. If international troops were needed to bring peace, Germany could not just spectate from the sidelines.

In the spring of 1999 Fischer backed the deployment of German bombers in a war to prevent a repeat of Srebrenica in Kosovo. A particularly bitter pill for multilateralist Germans, the intervention didn’t even have the fig leaf of a UN Security Council mandate. But Germany’s fascist past, Fischer argued to Green doubters, dictated that a democratic, liberal Germany do everything in its power to stop genocide in Europe, by military means when all other avenues had been exhausted, UN mandate or not. For Fischer, intervention in Kosovo constituted a legitimate last resort to defend human rights, not a rolling over to Washington and the military-industrial complex.

Europe’s premier Green party remains deeply split over the proper German role in humanitarian interventions, nation-building projects and peacekeeping missions with military mandates. In places like the Balkans and Afghanistan, where Germany helps run international protectorates, leftist critics detect a strong whiff of imperialism. Others doubt Fischer’s sincerity: They believe that he and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder bowed to Washington on Kosovo, and then on Afghanistan, to stay in America’s good graces and ultimately save their jobs. How, they ask, can human rights violations in Kosovo justify the bombing of civilian targets while the trampling of those same rights in China, Russia or Palestine is deemed unworthy even of trade sanctions? It’s a good question.

Since then, remarkably, Fischer and the red-green government have turned German engagement in world trouble spots into a defining characteristic of the so-called Berlin Republic. In 2001 Germany assumed the lead role in the NATO-run stabilization force in Macedonia, supplying most of the troops. A year later Germany went to war a second time since World War II, committing special forces to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. (A cluster of defiant Green and Social Democratic deputies opposed the government on both Macedonia and Afghanistan.) Today Germany has command of the NATO-led contingent in Afghanistan. By the beginning of 2002, quipped the left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung, “it seemed there wasn’t an intervention that red-green Germany wouldn’t support.”

Ironically, the red-green government has expanded Germany’s role and profile in the world in ways that a conservative leadership could never have dreamed of doing. For one, a conservative government would have had Greens, Social Democrats and other leftists battling it every step of the way in the Bundestag and protesting on the streets.

But more important, Fischer and Schröder represent a generation with a fundamentally different relationship to German history and German nationalism than that of conservatives. Fischer and many fellow Greens devoted their early lives to confronting the vestiges of National Socialism in West Germany’s political culture and admonishing their parents’ generation and the young state to do the same. In contrast, Germany’s Christian Democrats often resisted this process and, though much changed from the Adenauer era, still cling to outdated conceptions of nation, state and ethnicity. During conservative rule, periodic scandals over anti-Semitic remarks and sympathetic gestures to aspects of the Third Reich kept suspicions alive that deep down, Germans sullenly resented their postwar treatment and harbored less-than-pure ambitions that might one day, should the country ever unify or regain full sovereignty, rise to the surface.

Fischer’s generation is above these suspicions. German history is a topic that Fischer never shies from addressing. No matter how jet-lagged, the foreign minister always has a last burst of energy to expound on the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War, the Weimar Republic or the extermination of Europe’s Jews. So ostensibly sincere is this generation, much of it is more reticent about the “normalization” of German activism in the wider world than is most of the wider world. Earlier this year, the German Defense Ministry announced a far-reaching restructuring of its armed forces. It stated plainly that the priority of Germany’s army will not be the defense of German borders–as the Constitution stipulates–but international deployment in world conflict zones. Incredibly, not one of Germany’s neighbors, not Poland or France, uttered a peep of objection. Rather, German pacifists cried foul.

Another example, perhaps even more brash: Fischer’s version of a Greater Middle East Initiative poses Germany as a nonpartisan negotiator between Israel, Washington and the Arab/Muslim world, a proposal unthinkable in the not-so-distant past. So good is Germany’s political credit on the world market, a permanent German seat on the Security Council, though unlikely, seems to have the backing of all its current members and the necessary two-thirds of the UN General Assembly.

It was precisely this new latitude that enabled the red-green leadership to shake another of Germany’s sacred postwar pillars. When Germany refused to back the US invasion of Iraq, it altered the character of the transatlantic alliance forever: No longer would Germany act as a blindly loyal junior partner to America in international affairs.

Schröder and Fischer staked out their opposition on the Iraq issue somewhat differently. In summer 2002, German popular opinion was overwhelmingly against going to war with Iraq. Schröder, trailing badly in opinion polls, picked up the hot issue during the election campaign and played to a certain populism in order to win back supporters. He even boasted of “going our own German way” and insisted that “the existential questions of the German nation will be decided in Berlin…and nowhere else.” Fischer, on the other hand, remained analytical: The alleged threat of Iraq to Germany and its allies did not warrant the use of armed force to overthrow it. Nonmilitary means of containing Saddam Hussein had not been exhausted.

This was exactly what Fischer told US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in one of the defining moments of Fischer’s tenure in office. In February 2003 at the Munich security conference, Rumsfeld was recruiting European allies for the invasion of Iraq and had presented the American intelligence that supposedly documented the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda as well as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fischer, taking his turn at the lectern, at first spoke in German. But when he saw Rumsfeld in the audience, not wearing his translation headset and chatting to a colleague, he broke into English, nearly shouting at him, “Excuse me, I am not convinced. I am not convinced!” He continued in German: “We owe our democracy to the United States, but we must be convinced.”

This is classic Fischer. When he is truly convinced of something, he can convince others of it–and then very effectively. He changes his mind on major issues, as he did on the Balkans, but not without considerable introspection and deliberation. He wanted Rumsfeld to know that Germany’s response wasn’t a knee-jerk “no!” Fischer is a committed Atlanticist at heart; he simply did not believe that Iraq posed a threat to the West, and thus he couldn’t sell a war to his countrymen.

The idea that convinces Fischer most is that of a tightly bound, federal Europe. Fischer is a man of grand visions, and he tirelessly promotes that of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, the Baltic to the Balkans, including Turkey, in which nations pool ever more of their sovereignty. Fischer believes that in their historic campaign to forge a united, democratic Europe, his European predecessors (including a long line of conservative German chancellors) located the silver bullet that would expunge the aggressive nationalisms that have in the past torn the continent apart. Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova should all one day belong to an EU of thirty-five or even forty member states. The very process of coaxing them along the path to Europe will democratize and stabilize these weak states. This Europe, he exhorts his Green colleagues, is the progressive challenge of the twenty-first century.

Moreover, in a globalized world, argues Fischer, Germany and France alone cannot afford the resources to tackle today’s global problems–like AIDS, terrorism, climate change, failed states, sex and drug trafficking, migration and globalization itself. The Balkan wars prompted the Europeans to accelerate development of joint foreign and security structures, with an EU foreign affairs chief and plans for a single command center and a multinational army. At the very least, Europe should be capable of managing crises and keeping the peace in its own backyard.

So committed is Fischer to the idea, he reportedly wants the job of EU foreign minister for himself one day. Although he is not first in line for the position, his wish became distinctly more palpable when at the Brussels summit in June EU leaders agreed upon a European Constitution, which, among other innovations, stipulated the creation of a European foreign minister with a diplomatic corps. Now, all twenty-five members have to ratify the deal.

And many other key questions about Europe’s foreign and security policy remain wide open. The British, for example, favor subordinating the EU’s military component to NATO command; the French insist it should be wholly independent of NATO. The Germans lie somewhere in between.

Ultimately, the tighter Europe is and the more developed its foreign, security and defense capabilities, both civilian and military, the greater alternative it will pose to Pax Americana. Fischer and Schröder know this, as they know that even a unified Europe can’t compete with the United States in military hardware and technology. But this was never the idea. The Germans envision a European foreign and security policy designed to facilitate conflict prevention, diplomatic initiatives and the integration of peripheral states into multilateral bodies. It is the kind of soft power that West Germany used so effectively during the cold war, and that the Bush Administration tends to shun.

This emphasis on soft power notwithstanding, the EU is also developing a military component, a flexible 60,000-man rapid reaction force, available for peacekeeping tasks but also to intervene in worldwide conflict situations. Critically, it will have its own intelligence and logistics capabilities, as well as other combat support services. This–not Green whining–will begin to alter the present “checkbook” diplomacy in which America directs and conducts wars and the Europeans clean up afterward.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the US media, the new autonomous security mechanisms have taken shape and can already claim successes. In 2003 an EU stabilization force took over peacekeeping duties from NATO in Macedonia. Another EU contingent, commanded by France, intervened in Congo, at the UN’s bequest, to quell internecine fighting there. And in Bosnia the EU now runs the international policing duties and could take over command of the multinational armed forces later this year. Despite fierce opposition from Washington, the International Criminal Court in The Hague is up and running today.

Joschka Fischer and Germany’s red-green foreign policy can only be grasped within the context of this greater European project. Fischer is priming Germany to take an active role in this Europe of the future. It is the means for Europeans to offset or modify American dominance in world affairs. For a start, the EU can fill geopolitical vacuums, as in the Balkans or even Africa, where US interests are marginal.

Despite grumbling by some Greens, the party has of late jumped from one electoral triumph to another, increasing its share of the vote with support from outside the party’s traditional ranks. In the recent EU parliamentary elections, Germany’s Greens captured 12 percent of the vote. Newer Green parties in Britain, Austria and Finland also did well. In Germany, grassroots dissent hasn’t hurt the party in the least. To the contrary, voters seem to approve. Fischer is Germany’s keenest political tactician, and he always acts with one eye trained on the big picture. How green will European foreign policy be? Just look at Germany.