Returning to the Past to Win the Future: The SPD in Search of a Long-Term Strategy

Dieter Dettke

Georgetown University

Dr. Dieter Dettke is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr. Dettke served as the U.S. Representative and Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Washington from 1985 until 2006 managing a comprehensive program of transatlantic cooperation. In 2006, he joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and from September 2006 to June 2007, he was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is “Germany Says ‘No’: The Iraq War and the Future of German Foreign and Security Policy,” published by theWoodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2009.

Dr. Dettke is a foreign and security policy specialist, author and editor of numerous publications on German, European, and U.S. foreign and security issues.

He studied Law and Political Science in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, and Strasbourg, France and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1967/68.

Recent calls by members of the SPD leadership to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory have sparked debate within the SPD and with its governing partner, the CDU/CSU, over Germany’s security role in general. AGI presents three articles that examine the nuclear sharing issue and discussion today.

Still in the midst of a pandemic and trying to unify a dispirited party with low poll numbers, Germany’s Social Democrats are now trying to revive the uplifting spirit of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik with a new arms control initiative and by proposing a “New Ostpolitik” with Russia as a partner. Half a century after Brandt’s Grand Design for a new European peace order, his policies to overcome the division of Europe and to reduce tensions between East and West remain popular. In fact, in Germany, Ostpolitik is widely seen as complementing Germany’s role as part of the West and its main institutions, the European Union and NATO. Two recent interventions paradigmatically reflect the party’s efforts to renew the spirit of Brandt’s Grand Design as a key programmatic component of an SPD strategy back into positions of power and influence. They can be seen as building blocks for a future long-term SPD strategy. But these efforts still need to be enriched with substance and filled with detail.

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In his interview with Tagesspiegel on May 3, the leader of the SPD Parliamentary Group, Rolf Mützenich, demanded the removal of all nuclear weapons from German soil and questioned Germany’s nuclear sharing arrangement within NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group. Criticizing German nuclear policy in broad strokes he characterized nuclear sharing as a “construct from the time of the Cold War.” He also complained about President Trump, accusing the U.S. of changing the nuclear doctrine so that the purpose of nuclear weapons is no longer deterrence only, but also their use in case of war. “Even a first use of nuclear weapons is not off the table,” Mützenich said.

Parallel to Mützenich’s initiative, the Former Chairman of the SPD, Matthias Platzeck suggested launching a “New Ostpolitik” with Russia as a partner in the interest of preserving peace in Europe. In his new book entitled “Wir Brauchen Eine Neue Ostpolitik” (We Need a New Ostpolitik) Platzeck, who is now Chairman of the German-Russian Forum, perceives the current situation between Russia and the West as more dangerous and closer to war than at the time of Brandt’s Ostpolitik over fifty years ago. He explicitly refers to Ostpolitik and Egon Bahr’s concept of Wandel durch Annäherung (change through rapprochement) as a way to establish a new partnership with Russia in order to avoid a possible war in Europe. As in the case of the original Ostpolitik, he writes, Russia and Germany should come to an agreement “to agree to disagree.” This agreement worked in the past for German unification and in his view, it could be applied to the issue of Crimea today. Platzeck wants to put the issue of the illegal annexation of Crimea aside and come to an understanding with Russia on other political, economic, and security issues.

The Mützenich and Platzeck Initiatives and Their Consequences

The new nuclear debate within the SPD and the suggestion to launch a new Ostpolitik must be seen in the larger framework of re-defining the SPD as a party of peace and also to find and develop an effective campaign strategy for the 2021 national elections. The corona virus pandemic rendered this essential task for the SPD more difficult than ever before, in particular in competition with Chancellor Merkel’s growing public support resulting from her handling of the pandemic. Angela Merkel, who a few months ago appeared to be tired and on her way out, possibly even before Election Day in 2021, is now enjoying her best poll numbers ever. This is the result of her effective and compassionate management of the pandemic. Whereas the CDU and CSU bounced back to around 40 percent public support from much lower numbers last year, the SPD, in spite of solid contributions to effective governance of the Grand Coalition, keeps hovering around a dismal 15 percent public support. Under these circumstances, Mützenich’s nuclear initiative is primarily directed at his inner-party audience, in particular when taking into account that the SPD badly needs to free itself from internal conflicts and divisions in order to prevent another electoral disaster.

Mützenich’s nuclear initiative is primarily directed at his inner-party audience, in particular when taking into account that the SPD badly needs to free itself from internal conflicts and divisions in order to prevent another electoral disaster.

If the primary goal of the initiative had been to design a new nuclear arms control and disarmament strategy, its focus should have been much broader than the narrow issue of removing the few remaining U.S. tactical devices stationed at Buechel Air Base in the Eifel region, estimated to be just some twenty warheads under U.S. control. Willy Brandt saw arms control and disarmament always as a global issue that needs to be addressed in a larger international framework. In fact, it would be a useful initiative for the SPD to suggest that today’s key nuclear powers, the U.S., Russia, and China, should start negotiations on issues such as the prevention of nuclear proliferation, ways to contain the use of nuclear weapons in war, and develop strategies in support of a nuclear-free world. The fact that the initiative does not address the larger issues beyond the presence of tactical nuclear devices on German soil and Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing within the Nuclear Planning Group of NATO suggests that the primary objective of the proposal is to unite the party on the basis of the still ongoing popularity of Ostpolitik and arms control. A solid majority of German public opinion supports the withdrawal of nuclear weapons.

In his capacity as Chairman of the SPD Parliamentary Group, Mützenich is now the crucial power center of the party. He is involved in every political decision necessary to stay the course within the Grand Coalition and also to help prepare the SPD for the next national elections. Several recent personnel decisions he had to make deepened the tensions within the party. A particularly bitter aftertaste resulted from the nomination of the next Wehrbeauftragter (Ombudsman of the Armed Forces). According to the rules of the Grand Coalition, it is the right of the SPD to fill this position. When the CDU and CSU rejected the nomination of Johannes Kahrs as successor for the current office holder, Hans-Peter Bartels, who was interested in a second term, tensions between the left of the party and the more conservative Seeheim Circle became very visible. Women of the SPD Parliamentary Group wanted to set an example by nominating one of their own representatives for this historically male position. The CDU and CSU, too, wanted a woman (Claire Marienfeld, who served from 1995 to 2000) as Wehrbeauftragter.

When Mützenich nominated Eva Högl, a Deputy Floor leader, as the successor for Bartels, a disappointed Johannes Kahrs decided to leave the Bundestag. Women of the SPD Parliamentary Group were determined to set an example for taking on positions usually reserved for men. The decision caused disappointment among members of the Seeheim Circle, which under the leadership of Kahrs claimed large membership in the SPD Caucus. Kahrs and Bartels were well connected and respected in the German Armed Forces. Mützenich’s decision was perceived as a major victory for the left wing of the SPD and now Mützenich faces a challenge not to lose the trust of the Seeheim Circle in his leadership role.

It is also in the logic of the Mützenich initiative to oppose the defense ministry’s decision to replace the aging Tornado fleet with a combination of Eurofighters and American nuclear-capable F-18 Super Hornets. The SPD was in favor of replacing the nuclear-capable Tornados exclusively with Eurofighters not capable of carrying out nuclear missions. The long-term goal of the German Ministry of Defense is to equip the German Air Force with Eurofighters exclusively. This, however, would not happen before 2050. SPD cabinet members of the Grand Coalition have supported the defense minister’s decision to adopt a combination of non-nuclear-capable Eurofighters and American nuclea- capable F-18 Super Hornets. This makes sense also financially since the F-18 Super Hornet is much cheaper than the Eurofighter.

Internal and External Conditions of a New SPD Arms Control and Ostpolitik Initiative

The problem for the SPD is that any serious new nuclear initiative will have to address the military build-up of Putin’s Russia, including his supersonic “Wunderwaffen” (Miracle weapons) and the growing potential of sub-strategic nuclear weapons for primarily European targets. Not addressing these issues leaves room for speculation that the initiative might in fact be a signal to possible partners of a coalition model that the SPD now seems to see as the only way back to power: an SPD, Green, and Left Party (Die Linke) coalition. These parties show very similar anti-nuclear positions and arms control policies but differ on many other social and economic issues. One can expect that this signal will be taken up by the Left Party as well as by the Greens.

But from there to a possible coalition is a very long way and the SPD is not in a position to control events leading up to the 2021 elections. Coalition building after the elections is an open question. The Green Party, for example, now with similar poll numbers, if not even more support in public opinion polls than the 15 percent for the SPD, might have a different outlook on potential coalitions after the 2021 elections. The Left Party, too, could put conditions on coalition building that might turn out to be unacceptable for the others. The German NATO commitment could become a crucial issue if an SPD, Green, and Left Party coalition model would gain strength in the 2021 elections.

After the disastrous electoral results in the 2017 national elections, which led to the lowest point of voter support for the SPD since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany and a weakening of support for the SPD in several state elections, the inevitable conclusion of the SPD leadership was that the party must put an end to the Grand Coalition model of governance. The long and painful debate that has followed on how to renew and equip the party with a mandate for the future resulted in the election of a more left-leaning leadership duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. Both supported a new coalition model other than the current Grand Coalition, which they identified as a key reason for the SPD’s electoral decline.

The new leadership duo quickly put their weight behind Mützenich’s nuclear initiative and agree with the need for a new Ostpolitik. Saskia Esken, while supporting Mützenich, pointed in particular to her credentials as an opponent of NATO’s dual track decision and emphasized the possibility of creating a nuclear-free Germany today. What she leaves out of the picture is the important fact that the dual track decision led to the most important arms control agreement in history. The INF treaty of 1987 removed all U.S. and Soviet intermediate range nuclear weapons worldwide, including from Germany.

In theory, the Mützenich proposal and Platzeck’s Ostpolitik initiative could lead to a consensus within the SPD, but for that to occur it would be necessary to enlarge the framework of the initiatives and integrate concerns raised by a number of current and former party leaders. Key SPD figures in the Grand Coalition government, such as foreign minister Heiko Maas and finance minister Olaf Scholz, did not support Mützenich’s initiative. Maas argues that “unilateral measures that undermine trust do not contribute to achieve the goal of a nuclear-free world. They weaken our alliances. Germany as a strong voice for arms control and disarmament would no longer sit at the table.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the arguments put forward by Maas, saying that “only by remaining committed to the doctrine of ‘nuclear sharing,’ could Germany keep its position as a decision-maker within the Atlantic Alliance.” He also pointed out that “while NATO views its own nuclear deterrent primarily as a political tool, Russia has firmly integrated its nuclear arsenal into its military strategy and has threatened allies such as Denmark, Poland and Romania with nuclear strikes.”

It is true that a No-First-Use military Doctrine (NFU) never made it into official U.S. and NATO strategic documents. There is a No-First-Use policy, but military planners would argue that in a war, NFU could easily collapse and, therefore, would not be credible even if officially declared. That is also true for Russian military planners. Whether or not Russia has an official nuclear “escalate to de-escalate” military strategy is debatable. Russian sources deny this although Russia does not exclude the use of nuclear weapons “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” That leads American analysts to conclude that there is an “escalate to de-escalate” Russian military doctrine leaving open the first use of nuclear weapons in a war.

In any event, today’s political and military conditions are hardly comparable with Brandt’s and Bahr’s Ostpolitik of the past. The most important difference is that Brandt’s Ostpolitik was firmly anchored in the Western alliance. Ostpolitik was also Westpolitik. Germany’s détente policy ran parallel to America’s arms control agreements with Russia so that German Ostpolitik supported America’s strategic arms control and vice versa, American détente made treaties with Germany’s Eastern neighbors as well as the important Berlin Agreement possible and led to the normalization of German-German relations.

Sigmar Gabriel, the former Chairman of the SPD and also a former SPD foreign minister, expressed serious reservations about the Mützenich initiative. Like other SPD leaders in the past, for example Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Gabriel had expressed sympathy for a removal of nuclear weapons from German soil. But his and Steinmeier’s position did not address the issue unilaterally, as is the case of the new initiative. In Gabriel’s opinion the risk of a new arms race is not emanating from Europe or from the few American nuclear devices at Buechel Air Base. He is concerned about the proliferation of nuclear technology worldwide, referring in particular to North Korea and Iran. In his view, the proper policy initiative for Germany and the SPD would be to get the crucial nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, and China—to the negotiating table.

If the Mützenich initiative remains focused exclusively on the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear devices from German soil, it might become a burden for the SPD rather than a promising campaign strategy.

If the Mützenich initiative remains focused exclusively on the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear devices from German soil, it might become a burden for the SPD rather than a promising campaign strategy. Should this be the case, the larger issue of German “Westbindung” (integration into Western institutions) and the commitment to European integration would be at stake in the next elections. The same problem might also arise in the case of Platzeck’s “New Ostpolitik.” A European consensus on Platzeck’s New Ostpolitk is hardly conceivable, even with French president Emmanuel Macron demanding a more productive relationship with Russia. Poland and the Baltic states interpret the risks and threats emanating from Putin’s Russia in a different light. Based on their bitter experience in the past, they would see a new German Ostpolitik with Russia as a partner not as a European peace initiative, but as a German-Russian understanding over the heads of Baltic and Eastern European countries. Germany would risk losing the trust of her East European neighbors.

In order to be successful, SPD arms control and peace initiatives need to be grounded in hard political and military realities. It is not enough just to strive for peace. Kissinger’s observation that “If peace is the sole objective of politics, the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hand of the most ruthless” is still valid today. Therefore, a careful and cool-headed thinking through of the consequences of new nuclear arms control initiatives and what a new Ostpolitik could achieve is essential for the SPD. Paramount for Germany is to remain predictable and a trusted ally and partner for her neighbors. When Willy Brandt became chancellor in 1969, he committed Germany to a policy of good neighborhood saying that “Wir wollen ein Volk der guten Nachbarn sein und werden—im Innern und nach aussen.” (We want to be and become a people of good neighbors—internally and externally). That commitment should still be a guiding principle for the SPD as well as for German foreign policy in general.

Conclusion: No German Sonderweg Please

As the great historian Heinrich August Winkler put it, it took Germany a long time to arrive in the West. It was only with the unification of Germany as part of the West, and firmly imbedded in Europe, that the arrival in the West became complete. Unilaterally removing the remaining American nuclear devices from German soil and giving up nuclear sharing in NATO now would put Germany again on a trajectory to a new “Sonderweg” in Europe. In his last great speech at the Party Congress of the SPD in 2011, Helmut Schmidt described European integration as a raison d’etat for a modern Germany. Most importantly, this requires solidarity, sharing, and consensus building with Germany’s Western Alliance partners and the European Union. Never alone is the real lesson of the two world wars with Germany as the main source of conflict. The lesson for the SPD as a Europe Party can only be that Germany’s firm integration into Western institutions and the European Union must come first. That is what German Social Democrats decided after WWII and that should remain a binding legacy.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.