On foreign and defense policy, the Social Democrats have long been the reliable second pillar of Germany’s centrist course. But the SPD’s downward spiral at the ballot box has given way to left-leaning signaling that may well do the party more harm than good.
With roughly seven months to go until general elections on September 26, Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), seem to be doing all they can to already prep for an opposition role come next fall. One example: the party’s new obstructionism when it comes to defense matters.
In mid-December, the SPD caucus in the Bundestag blocked the equipment of Germany’s armed forces with armed drones. The SPD’s left-wing parliamentary leader, Rolf Mützenich, argued that there had been “insufficient public debate” to make the move now. (In fact, drones, or more generally the role of remotely-controlled and autonomous weapons systems, have been discussed since 2013.) He was supported by Norbert Walter-Borjans, the left-wing party co-chair who, together with fellow left-winger Saskia Esken, had beaten SPD Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the party leadership in December 2019. Scholz has since been declared Kanzlerkandidat, or “candidate for chancellor,” leading the SPD into the upcoming election campaign.
The decision infuriated the defense ministry led by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, or CDU/CSU) and caused much consternation within the Bundeswehr. Among soldiers as well as security specialists, armed drones are considered indispensable these days, given their crucial role not least in the defense of army units deployed abroad. In Afghanistan, for instance, where Germany continues to maintain a presence with around 1,100 troops, the Bundeswehr is entirely reliant on US air support.
The move also led to rumblings within the SPD. Highly regarded defense spokesman Fritz Felgentreu resigned; he was replaced by his deputy, Siemtje Möller, a first-term MP. Critics of the decision were irritated further five days later when the SPD held its big digital “debate camp” with 70 speakers and 30 discussion events, in preparation for the shaping of the party’s election manifesto. There was room to discuss “Social Democratic foreign policy” (with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas) and “feminist foreign policy”—but not armed drones, or defense policy more generally.
The drone decision is only one example, though. The SPD Bundestag caucus led by Mützenich, who has been on the left of the party all his political life, has also had second thoughts when it comes to Germany taking part in NATO’s “nuclear sharing” (Mützenich wrote his 1991 PhD thesis on “nuclear free zones” in international relations) or the deployment of a German frigate in the South China Sea. Then again, the obstructionism has been quite limited, which suggests it is largely symbolic. The SPD continues to support the Afghanistan mission (the coalition government last week decided to extend it for another year, until January 2022), and did not kick up a fuss when the eurodrone project (which can be armed) was discussed at the French-German defense council on February 5.
The Left Wing in Charge
Part of the reason for the SPD’s behavior is that for the first time, the SPD’s left-wing has taken key positions after the previous leader Andrea Nahles threw in the towel in 2019. Mützenich and Walter-Borjans are simply pushing for policies they believe in, moving the SPD deliberately further to the left and closer to the ideological “anti-militarism” of the Linke, or Left Party. New Linke co-leader Janine Wissler has ruled out Bundeswehr deployments of any kind.
But it also speaks to the SPD’s great uncertainty given its steady decline in popular support. Ever since Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lost in 2005 to Merkel (with 34.4 percent of the popular vote), the SPD’s fortunes have receded dramatically. General elections in 2009 (23 percent) and 2013 (25.7 percent) eroded the SPD’s claim to be a people’s party (Volkspartei), representing the whole spectrum of German society. In 2017, the SPD registered a devastating 20.5 percent and was still forced to enter into yet another “grand coalition” government with Merkel’s CDU/CSU. Since then, support has fallen even further, with the SPD stubbornly stuck at around 16 percent in polls.
Thus, the SPD’s new stance on defense is largely driven by the fear of alienating even more voters as well as a way of simply skipping over unpalatable choices, for instance on Russia policy. “There have always been pacifists in the SPD, but the SPD has never been a pacifist party,” one party insider told me. But in times of internal crisis, the insider added, the current SPD leadership reflexively turns to what they believe are certain and eternal vote winners: “a wealth tax, peace policy (Friedenspolitik), and Willy Brandt.”
This memory is highly selective, though. For a start, whoever quotes Willy Brandt also needs to mention Helmut Schmidt. In fact, ever since the SPD threw its neutralist foreign policy over board in 1959, it had been the tock to the CDU/CSU’s tick: the Christian Democrats made sure (West) Germany was deeply anchored in the West, the SPD added policies of Eastern détente which, Social Democrats always recognized, were only possible when based on the Westbindung, with strong military underpinning.
Thus, much of the equipment Bundeswehr soldiers are still using, starting with “Marder” tank, were brought into service by SPD defense ministers, who often scored highly when it came to being gruffly respected if not liked by the Truppe, or army rank and file, from Georg Leber to Peter Struck; the latter, the SPD’s (so far) last defense minister (2002-05), oversaw the Bundeswehr’s original Afghanistan deployment. And while the higher echelons in the army could be relied on to vote for the CDU/CSU, the lower ranks overwhelmingly supported the SPD.
Severing a Bond
The party leaders’ new “signaling,” especially the drone decision, now risks severing this long-standing bond. In other words: In trying to appeal to the principled pacifists within its ranks and possibly winning over a few tens of thousands from the Left Party, the SPD risks losing the soldiers’ vote which, counting their families, could well add up to half a million votes.
The irony is that the SPD is still much more “reliable” and centrist when it comes to foreign and especially security policy than the Greens, widely expected to be the CDU/CSU’s next coalition partner. Only parts of the Greens have supported the Afghanistan mission and NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP spending goal; and they have problems with drones and nuclear weapons, too.
What’s more, the SPD’s decision on armed drones, if reversed after the elections, would not seriously delay their eventual deployment. Broadly speaking, Germany’s Social Democrats, starting with “chancellor candidate” Olaf Scholz, are still on solid centrist ground when it comes to foreign policy. The question is, though, how much the party will matter at all after September 26.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.