Jun 22, 2022

Op-Ed: What the Watershed Moment Means for German Foreign Policy

Russia’s war against Ukraine constitutes a historic moment, argues the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). It requires the country to act as a leading power. It also means that the European Union needs to become a stronger geopolitical player.

Lars Klingbeil, chairman of the Social Democratic party (SPD) gives a statement at the party's headquarters after first exit poll for the federal state election of Saarland were published, in Berlin, Germany, March 27, 2022.
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There are moments when it is immediately clear that the moment is historic, and will change the course of history.

When I was 11 years old, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. That was one of those moments. The idea of communism was dead and there was only this one path to the future: liberal democracy. The clash of ideologies seemed to have been resolved. I never understood the insane idea of suppressing freedom behind walls. But that this attempt had been made left a deep impression on me.

When I was 23 and in New York for an internship, I witnessed the 9/11 attacks first-hand. The attacks changed my view of the world in many respects. They politicized me, shaped my relationship with the Bundeswehr, and reinforced my interest in security policy.

And now: February 24, 2022—the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. A caesura for the European peace order. A “watershed moment” (Zeitenwende).

We are facing a huge political task. The old has ceased to exist, but the new has not yet begun.

Drawing the Right Conclusions

Today, I am not 11 or 23. I am 44. As party chairperson of the SPD, I bear responsibility.

On the morning of February 24, I was fully aware that this moment changed everything, and that the major task that falls to my generation is to draw the right conclusions from this watershed moment.

This watershed moment will demand a lot from us. It marks a caesura. The upheavals have implications for the political agenda for the next 20 years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin started this war. He bears the responsibility for the brutal killings and for the suffering inflicted on Ukrainians. It is his attack on the sovereignty of a European country.

We are not to be blamed for Putin’s war, but we must ask ourselves self-critically what we could have done differently before February 24. Above all, however, we must ask ourselves what we can now do better with a view to the future. And then we must actually do it.

The Post-Cold War Era

Where are we coming from? After the mass murder of European Jews and two world wars started by the German Reich, we Germans were readmitted into the international family of states. It was miraculous that first the Federal Republic and later united Germany once again became a cherished partner of the international community. Our history dictates that we must exercise restraint. Our integration in Europe became part of our new self-understanding.

The end of World War II to the emergence of a bipolar world order. This came to an abrupt end in 1989. German reunification and the disintegration of the Soviet Union followed. The direction was clear: the West had won.

It seemed only a matter of time until the whole world consisted exclusively of liberal democracies. Samuel Huntington wrote about waves of democratization. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. But history had never come to an end.

The West felt too certain that this one end is all the future has in store. A war between states in Europe seemed unimaginable. Our order was based for decades on belief in the inalterability of borders, in state sovereignty, all cast in treaties and international law.

We made ourselves comfortable in this world. When it was jolted here or there, we were convinced that everything would settle down again in the end. We believed that in the end our political model would prevail, that the rules-based international order would prevail.

A Flexible World Order

We failed to recognize that things had long since begun to take a different course. We should have interpreted the signals from Russia differently—at the latest in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law. Russia became increasingly authoritarian and is now a dictatorship. China also has a completely different vision from ours. And many countries in the Global South have been disappointed by the promises of liberal democracies.    

I believe that in future, the world will no longer be organized by different poles, but by centers exercising power in different ways. Allegiance, pressure, and oppression are no longer decisive for alignment, but instead convictions and interests. These power centers are attractive; they create ties, dependencies, and cooperation. They are dynamic and joining them is in one’s own interest. Thus, power is exercised differently today.

This world order has major advantages for states that as yet do not constitute a strong center but have great economic and political potential, because they no longer have to align themselves with a bloc. They can choose which issues they want to cooperate on and with whom. The world order is becoming more flexible and dynamic. Negotiations between states are becoming even more important, but equally important are resilient and trusting relationships.

Alternatives to the Western model of development have grown. For many years, Russia and China have also been courting democratic states such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, giving them a voice at the international level through the BRICS initiative, for example. They have seen the interests of these countries and have treated their governments with respect. That has built trust.

We are currently seeing the effects of this when many states are rejecting our sanctions policy against Russia. The votes in the United Nations General Assembly show that half of the world’s population does not support our policy. This must give us pause for thought. While it should not affect the substance and severity of our decisions, it should influence our activities in other regions of the world.

Inclusive Structures

If the new world order is organized around centers, then we can deduct from this what needs to be done. We must devote ourselves to cultivating binding power, forging new political alliances, concluding partnership agreements, and offering open structures such as the international climate club proposed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. We need structures that are inclusive and not exclusive, that have added value for all sides.

We must build and expand these strategic partnerships. More specifically, this must already happen in the coming months when it comes to confronting food shortages. There will be famines in Africa, Latin America, and many countries in Asia, also as a consequence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. We must now work together to counteract this.

We need new strategic alliances based on economic interests and political orientation.

We must engage more intensively with the countries of the Global South and make them offers of cooperation. They are no less affected by unresolved global issues than we are. In doing so, we should seek new partnerships, for example, in the areas of health, technology, alternative fuels such as hydrogen, and climate change.

No More “Change Through Trade”

Our ambition in Europe must be to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent, to create innovations and standards to achieve this and to ensure that the transformation is socially just. We want to show that climate protection and prosperity can go hand in hand. If we succeed in this, other countries will take their cue from us and follow the same path.

In doing so we will also have to deal with countries that do not share our values or even reject our social order. Nevertheless, we have to work with them. It is always a matter of weighing up how deep our cooperation should go and at what point such cooperation might violate our principles and values. Our inner compass must be unwavering. We must address injustice. We must not give up on change. There cannot be cooperation without taking a stance. “Change through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung) must never be reduced to “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel).

We must never again become as dependent as we became on Russia with regard to our energy policy. Europe must develop its strategic autonomy. Critical goods and critical infrastructure must be produced and supported here in Europe. With regard to China, this means, for example, reducing dependencies in the areas of medicine and technology. It does not mean that we should no longer trade with countries like China, as some are proposing—but it does mean that we must adopt strategically clever and resilient courses of action.

We are now facing several years of ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the future world order. The coming years will be marked by competition for relationships, dependencies, ties, collaborations, and influence. We must brace ourselves for this competition.

I am convinced that no state can master the challenges of the globalized world alone. Therefore, we need, as described, strong centers working in a single direction. The European Union is such a center, but it must now develop geopolitical significance, too. It remains enormously important in this respect that we as the West stand shoulder to shoulder: a strong Europe at the core, but in close alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and others.

Germany’s Role

Germany must aspire to be a leading power (Führungsmacht). After almost 80 years of restraint, Germany now has a new role in the international system. Germany has built up a high level of trust over the past decades. But with this trust come expectations. We have just seen that in the discussions over the past weeks. Germany is increasingly the center of attention. We should fulfil these expectations.

Leadership does not mean adopting an aggressive, macho posture. Hopefully, smart leadership cultures will prevail in international politics—just as they do in domestic politics. Incidentally, this also includes the idea of a feminist foreign policy. Leadership means being aware of your role: not shirking challenges or confrontation, taking others with you; never being arrogant, but acting thoughtfully, with conviction and consistently. A collaborative leadership style is a smart leadership style. It must also be respectful, even in cases of disagreement.

It must always be clear what our motivation is. We conduct foreign policy so that people can live in security, peace, and prosperity. US President Joe Biden speaks of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” I think this is exactly the right approach. Foreign policy engagement is never an end in itself; it always has an impact on our concrete social conditions.

We are currently witnessing the enormous cost of an unstable international order, war, and disrupted supply chains for life here at home. In the end, international conflicts also have an enormous explosive potential for our democracy and the cohesion of our society. This is precisely why foreign policy engagement is so important. Internal and external conditions are becoming more closely interconnected.

Tough Decisions

Yes, this new role as a leading power will require Germany to make tough financial and political decisions. We need to change structures and renegotiate budgets. We need a completely different debate about security policy in Germany.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the German government have had to rethink and change some basic principles of German foreign policy in recent weeks. We stand in solidarity with Ukraine. We are supplying weapons, including heavy artillery. We are imposing tough sanctions whose effects Russia will feel for decades. And we are exerting tough political pressure together with our partners in the United States and Europe. It is right that we are taking these steps. This is Germany’s new role.

A New Approach to Eastern Neighbors

In recent years, we went along with the mainstream approach in security policy of neglecting national and alliance defense. I recently had a visit from my social democratic colleagues from Lithuania. They told me about their fear that Putin will attack their country as well. My first reflex was to say: “Nonsense, Putin won’t do that.” But then I realized that precisely this reflex was the mistake.

In mid-February, more than 2,000 security experts gathered at the Munich Security Conference. Only a handful of them thought that Putin would attack Ukraine. A few days later, Putin launched his attack. Therefore, we have to think in scenarios and prepare ourselves. When we hear from the Baltic States or Poland that they are afraid of being Russia’s next targets, then we must take this seriously.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly made it clear that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. I welcome his decision to station more German troops on NATO’s eastern flank and to step up the protection of our Eastern European partners. Better equipment for the Bundeswehr is also urgently needed for this purpose.

Enhancing the Bundeswehr

We need to develop a different way of dealing with the Bundeswehr. It is good that we have launched the €100 billion special fund for the Bundeswehr. This fund will enable us to close capability gaps and place national and alliance defense back in the spotlight. In doing so, we also underscore our promise of protection to our own citizens and our alliance partners.

Our armed forces were progressively reduced in size, bases were closed, and compulsory military service was abolished. The Bundeswehr was increasingly pushed to the sidelines in public debates. Often it only received attention when there were scandals. One almost had the impression that some people believed that the less Bundeswehr there was, the less likely there would be a war. But the opposite is the case.

I have been experiencing this contradiction up close for some time—as the son of a soldier, as someone whose hometown is Munster, also home to the largest army garrison, as someone who knows what it means to lose an acquaintance in the Afghanistan mission and as someone who has been a member of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee for 12 years. Standing up for the Bundeswehr in society was often viewed critically.

As a society, I hope that we will develop a new normal with the Bundeswehr. I hope that it will become a matter of course to show respect and recognition to those who perform their service for our country and are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if parliament decides to employ the Bundeswehr. I would like us to include the Bundeswehr in our talks about peace and security. Talking about war does not lead to war; closing one’s eyes to reality leads to war.

For me, peace policy also means seeing military force as a legitimate means of politics. Incidentally, this is also envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. It is always the last resort, but it must also be clear that it is a means. We are seeing this now in Ukraine.

Extending a Strong Hand

These statements may sound alarming:  the chairperson of the SPD is speaking of Germany as a leading power, about the Bundeswehr and military force. But my claim is that we should be realistic. Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt already knew that military strength and capability are also among the foundations for a powerful peace policy. At that time, the defense budget represented more than 3 percent of our GDP.

The hand we extend must be strong. Brandt and Schmidt understood that one can only stand up for peace and human rights from a position of strength. We should not conduct debates in a truncated manner.

I am proud of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. It won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Brandt’s Ostpolitik was the basis for reunification, overcoming systemic contradictions and the democratization of many former Eastern Bloc states.

When I say that the watershed moment requires us to take leave of certainties, this does not mean throwing everything overboard that was right. Diplomacy, agreements, international disarmament initiatives, international law, development policy, multilateralism, and fair international financial policy—these are and will remain the most successful means of conflict resolution and, above all, conflict prevention. They are part of a comprehensive security policy, and we must strengthen them. That remains a matter of course for social democrats. For me, the most important project of a Social Democratic foreign and security policy is Europe.

EU Enlargement and Reforms    

As a leading power, Germany must promote a sovereign Europe. Germany can only be strong if Europe is strong. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been in the Balkans in recent weeks and has promised North Macedonia and Albania to start accession negotiations to the EU soon. He also delivered an important message during his trip to Kyiv in the company of other heads of government: Ukraine belongs in Europe. It is are fighting for European values. With Ukraine, Europe is stronger. Moldova also needs candidate status.

Europe must acquire greater weight as a geopolitical player. After the end of the Cold War, the EU already showed that it is capable of acting geopolitically and strategically. It was a political objective to enable the former Eastern Bloc countries to quickly join the EU.

I want the EU to push ahead with the next accession negotiations with political pressure now as well. That does not mean any discount or fast track for the candidate countries. The Copenhagen criteria apply. We will not allow the accession processes to become bogged down in Brussels bureaucracy, but will actively drive them forward as a geopolitical project.

When we talk about enlargement, we certainly also have to talk about internal reforms. Only in this way will the EU also become capable of admitting new members.

Even with more members, the EU must be able to act quickly. We must therefore abolish the principle of unanimity, in foreign policy and in financial and fiscal policy. That would make the EU more adroit, enable it to act more quickly, and it would also make it more democratic.

There will be no compromises on the rule of law and democracy. Therefore, we need a new mechanism to effectively defend the Copenhagen criteria even after a country has been admitted.

Politicizing Europe’s Future

I am firmly convinced that now is the right time to finally forge ahead with a European defense and security policy. 27 countries that maintain their own procurement systems, have their own defense contractors, and negotiate individually with these contractors—it is impossible to explain why we are not finally bundling these resources at the European level.

Now, we should finally get down to work. In the end, the goal must be for us to effectively pool resources and build a strong European pillar in NATO. The European states in NATO should in the future be able to jointly defend European territory. This is not a policy against the transatlantic alliance, but one that strengthens the alliance.

In addition to foreign and security policy, it is also a matter of strengthening Europe internally, of investing in social cohesion. All over Europe, people are struggling with increased prices. The war is also endangering social peace in our country. This is part of Vladimir Putin’s strategy. He is waging a war against the European democracies; he wants to subvert and divide us.

We need to hold our societies together in this crisis. With the reconstruction fund and the SURE program, a European protective shield against unemployment, we have demonstrated this in recent times. These have provided security throughout Europe. Now the task is to ensure that this progress is firmly anchored. This includes allowing flexibility in a reform of the Stability and Growth Pact to invest in future-related issues such as the ecological and digital transformation.

I believe in the unique power of Europe. I believe in the power of social democratic convictions for a life in freedom, security, and solidarity. And I believe in the creative power of our democracy, the power of politics to grow through crises and to shape a better future.

This article was adapted from a foreign policy keynote speech given to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s “Tiergarten Conference” on June 21, 2022. The original German version can be found here.

Lars Klingbeil is chairperson of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

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