The Foreign Policy of the SPD

This year, the Social Democratic Party of Germany was the first party to present a finished election programme. Yet the SPD is currently in a difficult situation. In the last federal elections, the veteran workers’ party had to accept its worst election result since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. In addition, every few years there is a change of leadership within the party which has become habitual and which lacks the great heads of character. This is also reflected in the new poll results, which indicate an even worse result than four years ago.

The party is also struggling with very specific problems in formulating a new policy. For example, with a brief interruption from 2009 to 2013, it has been in government since 1998. While under Schröder until 2005 it was still able to provide the chancellor and decisively determine the government’s work, in the subsequent coalitions it was merely the junior partner of the CDU under Merkel, which always cleverly knew how to present the successes of the respective government as its own. In foreign policy, this problem is even bigger, as the SPD has provided the country’s foreign minister since 2013. Under such circumstances, how can one credibly embody a mood of change, which is absolutely necessary in German foreign policy?

The party’s strategy is clearly aimed at a deeper integration into the European Union. To this end, the goal has been set of “further developing the EU into a genuine fiscal, economic and social union.” This deepening is also to be reflected in foreign policy. To this end, the majority instead of the current unanimity principle is to be applied in foreign policy. In the long term, there should also be a separate European foreign ministry. The SPD regards the European Union as a “peace power”. Since it already regards Germany as such a peace power, it seems to see the EU as an extension of German foreign policy.

It is understandable that the SPD also refers to the “Alliance of Multilateralism”, which was initiated by its Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. However, it must be clearly stated here that this supposed alliance has achieved practically nothing in the roughly two years of its existence. If this is to serve as a model for a social democratic foreign policy, unfortunately not much can be expected.

The programme also takes explicit positions on various regions and countries. The USA, for example, is to be “approached” as if there were any other option there. Here, too, as with other parties, it speaks of a “new start” in transatlantic relations, through which one would like to cooperate with each other in various fields. However, there is no mention of adhering to one’s own treaty-based alliance obligations, and this is ultimately, even after Trump, the biggest point of contention between Germany and the US. The constant references to the importance of the EU in this case feed the suspicion that this is merely being used as an excuse not to take action on one’s own. This suspicion is further supported by the government’s work in recent years.

With regard to Russia, the party traditionally has a less confrontational stance than most other parties. That there can be peace in Europe not against but only with Russia is as valid today as it was 50 years ago. Thus, although the programme mentions Russia’s violations of the law under Putin and is also very critical of the Belarusian government, it also emphasises “the readiness for dialogue and cooperation” with Moscow. Consistently, it also pursues a new Russia policy of the European Union and the entire West. Even if its current foreign minister does not seem to be following this party line, it is to be hoped that the SPD could take a pioneering role in relations with Russia, which is urgently needed.

The SPD is similarly critical of China as the Greens, but refrains from overly moralising formulations. It emphasises Europe’s joint stance towards Beijing and the need to cooperate with the government in Beijing on many issues. There is also a reserved attitude towards the Turkish government, but it favours a more intensive dialogue between Turkey and the European Union in order to be able to exert a certain influence on Ankara.

With regard to Israel, their “security and right to exist as part of Germany’s reason of state” is emphasised. A two-state solution is stated as the goal, but any annexation of foreign territory is rejected. However, outside the election programme, the statements of SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and party leader Norbert Walter-Borjans show that there is obviously a certain hubris in the party with regard to the Middle East conflict and German influence on it. For example, Maas presented a three-step plan to de-escalate the situation that can only be described as ridiculous (1. stop the missile terror; 2. an end to the violence; 3. talks on the two-state solution). Walter-Borjans, on the other hand, is in favour of continuing to supply weapons to Israel, but formulates as a condition for this his “claim has to be heard a bit”, for example, to “open up to a two-state solution” or to “have a de-escalating effect”. How the two politicians could have fallen for the idea that the German government has any significant influence on what is happening on the ground remains a mystery to me. In any case, the mentality of German global politics from Wilhelmine times still seems to have an effect today.

That leaves the policy towards the regions in the immediate European neighbourhood. First of all, the importance of a good relationship with the United Kingdom is emphasised and the country is described as a “close friend of the EU” with which “a comprehensive partnership” is strived for in the long term. To the south and east of the EU, on the other hand, there are many crises and the growing influence of other states, which must be countered “by a conceptually reoriented neighbourhood policy” of the EU. Once again, the suspicion arises that the formulation of foreign policy is being shifted to the EU. The countries of the Western Balkans should be integrated, which would put them in line with the Greens and could bring them into conflict with France. As far as Africa is concerned, there is only one sentence: “We want to significantly expand the partnership between Europe and Africa politically and economically and raise it to a new level of cooperation”.

Reading the programme, one sometimes gets the impression that the SPD still imagines itself in the days of the Bonn Republic, when the Federal Republic of Germany was still a border state of the West vis-à-vis the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Keeping the peace and thereby making reunification possible was the basic orientation of social democratic foreign policy and also gave them one of their party’s finest hours through the new Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr. But the situation today is completely different. Germany is one of the largest economies in the world and in many ways the strongest and the central country in Europe. The fact that Germany can only implement its foreign policy in cooperation with its European partners has recently been impressively demonstrated by the example of Nord-Stream 2. However, the solution to the problem cannot lie in ceding the initiative to the institutions of the European Union, especially since it has had few successes in the field so far. The strategic debate must also be conducted within Germany, and it is high time to start it.

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