Gerhard Schröder was elected as German chancellor on October 27, 1998 -- and almost immediately he was faced with a foreign policy conundrum that threatened to tear apart his fledgling coalition.
Kosovo was burning. Serbs had entered the largely ethnic-Albanian province and were pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Having failed bitterly to stop the fighting during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community was eager to avoid a repeat. NATO was prepared to stop Serbia by force if necessary.
Germany, though, was only just making its first tentative steps onto the world stage. A hospital here, a humanitarian mission there -- that was when it came to German military presence abroad.
"It was fully clear to me," Schröder writes in his newly published memoirs, "that for many in the (Social Democratic) party -- and in society in general -- the idea that German soldiers, in this case fighter pilots, would intervene once again in a region that had suffered so much under German occupation during World War II was unbearable."
Nevertheless, Schröder writes, "I was convinced of the need for an active German contribution."
His foreign minister, Green Party head Joschka Fischer, didn't need much convincing. Even as his party had prided itself as being devoted to pacifism and peace, Fischer felt that German involvement was necessary, even if it was going to be a difficult pill for his party to swallow. Still, the two agreed it was a necessary step to take.
"Now, on the cusp of the 21st century," Schröder writes, "the real challenge seemed to me not just to douse the most recent fire in the Balkans, but to bring peace to the region . The goal was exclusively humanitarian."
But the German public wasn't the only hurdle on the road to an involvement in Kosovo. Russia too, which traditionally throws its weight behind Serbia, had to be convinced to refrain from getting involved. Schröder is clear about who was responsible for this foreign policy coup:
"Moscow had for some time given the impression that it stood on the side of Belgrade out of a kind of pan-Slavic sentiment -- an alliance that the Serbian President Milosevic could use as a trump card. It was to the great credit of the German foreign ministry that it finally persuaded a hesitant Russia that it was in its own interest to withdraw its support for Belgrade."
The bombing campaign against the Serbs lasted from March until June of 1999, a relentless operation that took a special interest in the Serbian capital Belgrade. But not all went as planned. On May 7, a NATO bomb struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists. The United States insisted the bombing had been a mistake -- the result of using outdated maps to plan the sortie. The Chinese, for their part, were outraged and convinced the bombing had been deliberate. Schröder had already been scheduled to make his first official visit to Beijing that month. He decided to go ahead with the trip.
"The visit was important to me; for me it was about apologizing to the Chinese government for the incident, openly, publicly, and as a representative of the alliance. Only in this way could China save face. And my impression of the meeting with the Chinese leadership was: My apology did not fail. There was a lot of coverage in the country's media about it. China maintained its neutral position in the Balkan conflict."
Finally, with the US and Britain publicly considering sending in ground troops, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic finally realized that the game was up and agreed to a UN peace-keeping force in Kosovo. But even as world attention quickly turned elsewhere, the repercussions were large for Europe and for Germany.
The Kosovo engagement "taught Europe the lesson that without the help of the United States, it was not in a position to solve these kinds of conflicts," Schröder writes.
It was a conclusion that the US came to as well. Schröder writes that the US made certain that its European allies were left with little doubt as to who was left as the world's only superpower after the end of the Cold War. "It sometimes didnt come across as very diplomatic," he demurs.
For Germany, though, the Kosovo War marked the acceptance of Germany's full participation in world affairs. In the early 1990s there had been some international concern about a newly reunited Germany and discomfort about the idea of German soldiers being deployed even on peace-keeping missions.
"Only a few thoughtful observers were able to rightly appreciate the transformation of Germany's self-perception following two world wars. Regarding the participation of German soldiers in military operations abroad, there was the internal view and the external view, which didnt match."
Paradoxically, though, it was a governing coalition of Schröder's center-left Social Democrats -- also known as "the reds" -- and the environmental, pacifist Greens which led Germany into its new era of international military engagement.
"Perhaps it was a trick of history that of all things a Red-Green coalition had to take over political power in order for Germany to live up to its responsibilities."