SPD’s Foreign Policy: A Pale Future

After the election of the new leadership of the SPD, many doubts  arise as to where German foreign policy will go in the coming months. Originally published on MondoDem,  Translated with DeepL because I'm lazy. 

The diatribes about the “social” portion of social democracy are an evergreen of the entire European left, but they are especially so for one of the few parties that survived two century changes, two world wars, a totalitarian dictatorship and three constitutions. Many Genossens (the German term for “comrades” that no ideological spasm has been able to undermine) comment on the possibility that the party may abandon Angela Merkel’s coalition government as an opportunity to strengthen its political profile, of course, but also as a break with that tradition of responsibility that can only have an older party of the federal republic itself.

In this climate of uncertainty, the speech of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on social democratic foreign policy is perhaps the best indicator of what Berlin is doing at the moment. There could be no better stage than the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the great research foundation of the SPD and named after the first president of the Weimar Republic. Was Maas thinking of him as he watched the international crowd gathered just a few steps from the Tiergarten? The painful decision to ally with the Wilhelminian army to suppress the communist uprisings in order to save the newborn republic from oblivion? Probably not. The imperative to take responsibility today stirs the SPD and Germany in a very different way, since the last elections. The threat of China, the unpredictability of Trumpiana and the Russian sneer at the liberal order would already be enough to put any government under pressure.

And then there’s Macron. The declarations on NATO, the veto on the process of admission of Albania and North Macedonia to the EU, the openings in Moscow without consulting the allies: all this is putting a strain on the Franco-German tandem that many hoped could be revived by an energetic president and a Germany increasingly concerned about the decline of multilateral institutions. Berlin think-tanker Claudia Major, in the same issue as the Economist on “brain death” at NATO, noted that “We constantly feel like the French want something from us, and that it is so annoying”.

The speech of 28 November is the sum of the policies that Berlin has the capacity to undertake, and precisely for this reason it is characterized by a certain pragmatism. Right from the start, the minister reaffirmed the German commitment to Eastern Europe, showing himself to be softer on violations of the rule of law than on the peremptory tones of Brussels. The explicit rejection of a two-speed Europe, the bogeyman for many Eastern European countries frightened by the idea of becoming second-class members, can also be read in this way. Less encouraging is the intention to push for pan-European minimum labour standards, opposed by many because they risk jeopardising the competitiveness of low wages to the east of the Oder. The question also arises as to how, despite NATO’s swordfight defence, the absence of any notable criticism of Russia will be perceived, counterbalanced by more insistent criticism of China and the United States, which are considered to be major partners, particularly in Poland and Hungary.

The real workhorse of Maas, however, is the “alliance of multilateralists”, a set of countries dedicated to saving international cooperation from collapse. Claiming the first successes in the negotiations to limit the use of artificial intelligence in war, there were also very little veiled attacks on Macron and its shocking declarations. “German foreign policy cannot be disruptive. It cannot be a competition between ideas, but the ability to hold things together – the EU, the United Nations, international treaties.

This emphasis on new capacity building, dialogue and cooperation basically reflects a combination of different factors. There is, of course, a need for an exporting country like Germany to be concerned about global stability, and therefore to avoid spilling more gasoline on the many fires that are burning around the world. There is undoubtedly also a desire to offer an alternative international paradigm to the French one, which is not always appreciated in the Community institutions and in Eastern Europe. However, it should also be borne in mind that more decisive international leadership would in any case be limited by the power games within the federal political parties.

Just last month, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, secretary of the CDU and minister of defence, proposed the deployment of a peacekeeping force in northern Syria to protect the Kurds. The move was interpreted by some as an attempt to strengthen their own security profile at the expense of their rivals within the party. That the foreign ministry had not been informed, however, caused a number of perplexities, overcome only by the embarrassment caused by the liquidation of the initiative by Maas during a summit in Ankara.

It is difficult not to read in the dogma of moderation as an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity, referring to the usual myths of social-democratic responsibility (watchword Ostpolitik, a must in German political rhetoric). However, if we look beyond what is happening elsewhere, there can only be doubts as to how useful such a limited approach can be.

The victory of the left-wing tandem Esken/Walter-Borjans is unlikely to attenuate the fight within the party, indeed. The supposed reshuffle of government, a renegotiation of the government contract or even the withdrawal of ministers could increase the friction between currents even on foreign policy issues. It goes without saying that even in relations with the CDU the crossfire between ministers intensifies: despite the success of the last congress, Kramp-Karrenbauer still risks mutiny in his own party. Here, too, foreign and security policy issues often represent excuses for internal settlements, as was the attempt of some party members to bypass the secretary’s moderate position on Huawei’s involvement in the German 5G network.

Although the politicization of these issues can be positive in a democratic society, so far in Germany this seems to have produced only disunited leadership consumed by internal conflicts.

For better or for worse, more radical politicians across the sleeve and ocean have used the international malaise to launch ideas for reflection on a foreign policy based on the fight against kleptocracy and global economic injustice. But at the opening of a conference focused on a different model of foreign policy, one could legitimately have expected a more ambitious vision than an attempt to defend the status quo. For change to be irreconcilable with responsible policy, it is not clear.