Steinbrück’s Missed Opportunity

Peer Steinbrück at FU Berlin
Peer Steinbrück at FU Berlin – June 4, 2013

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic challenger to chancellor Angela Merkel in the upcoming election, gave a speech at Freie Universität Berlin on Tuesday. You can watch it online (in German). This was not meant to be a typical campaign talk, but a speech on the “guidelines of social democratic foreign and security policy”.

The speech was disappointing. For people familiar with the issue area, in particular the first half of the speech seemed very much rooted in the general wisdom, or rather, the commonly shared worries about the state of the world. Steinbrück failed to clearly distinguish his position from vague and all too familiar boilerplate statements. Europe is important for Germany and a historic achievement that should be cherished. International law and the UN Security Council must be considered in decisions about employing the German army. Drones that kill people are undesirable. Oh my, who would have thought?

Steinbrück was unable to clarify how and why his positions represent social democracy, let alone an alternative to Merkel-style realpolitik. His dismissive response when asked about this weakness: “If a social democrat gives a speech, than this a speech about social democratic positions.” Well, what might these positions be?

The aspect of solidarity comes to mind. With regard to the EU, which took up a lot of time on Tuesday, Steinbrück stressed the harshness of austerity measures, but did not go into details about alternative approaches. To be fair, I liked his proposal to let some states act as “pacemakers” in European affairs, e.g. by cooperating more deeply in tax harmonization or other areas. Instead of institutionalizing a “Europe of two speeds”, he suggested forming separate, issue-based ad-hoc groups.

Yet his vague calls for collective efforts fell short of clearly stating policy options. Is he in favor or against collectively issued European bonds? Contrasting the 700 billion Euro “used to rescue the banking sector” with 10 billion he would like to use for job creation is a cheap trick. In fact, the former sum was not spent but ‘guaranteed’ by European governments, and the latter promise remained vague. And closer cooperation alone, let alone giving more procedural rights to the European Parliament, does not lead to more social democratic policies in the EU. Ask Fritz Scharpf if you don’t believe me.

So one reason to be disappointed is the lack of social democracy in Steinbrück’s talk. But even if you did not intend to vote for his party in the first place, you should be worried. The disappointing content and the meandering, uninspired prose of the speech reflect an even worse problem in this country: German politicians as well as the electorate by and large don’t really care about foreign policy.

Immigration, which should be a topic where the center-left diverges from conservatives, was not mentioned. But if we include the European Union and the job market in a talk about foreign policy, then immigration should play a role. The environment? A speech on foreign policy in 2013 apparently can do without it. (Does anyone remember ‘climate chancellor’ Merkel?) The same goes for development cooperation, on which we heard a promise to finally meet the officially established ODA quota, but not much about justice or solidarity.

Geopolitics? Yeah, we need to keep talking to both Russians and Americans, and it would be nice to have a unified EU position. But what exactly are our plans with respect to China and India? The G20 were mentioned as a manifestation of shifting power constellations, but there’s no long-term vision for a German role in this forum. And the drones, which are currently a hot topic in domestic politics and thus got a lot of attention? By demonizing the technology as such, Steinbrück failed to distinguish between targeted killing on the one and surveillance missions on the other hand.

Had he thought a bit more about “why Germany should even need drones”, maybe he would have decided to address one of the inconvenient truths in European security policy: Against what is this continent being protected in the first place? I would wager that we will hear more on drones when it comes to securing the southern borders of the Union, where millions of jobless people are (thankfully) no longer held back by repressive regimes.

Steinbrück was too busy trying to demonstrate old-fashioned statesmanship. He did not attack the current government as strongly as he could have, for instance regarding Germany’s performance in the UN Security Council (Libya and its consequences for Syria) or the situation in Mali, where European allies were disappointed. Next to these security-related questions, Steinbrück shied away from developing an agenda for other policy fields with foreign policy implications. This way, he presented himself as a state-centric traditionalist, without any vision of global governance, limited to ad-hoc realpolitik (or inaction).

Education, employment, immigration reforms; more solidarity within and beyond Europe; closer cooperation with and support for all neighbors – instead of Frontex and a European fortress! That would have been a powerful message about “left-of-Merkel” foreign and security policy.

Too bad he missed this opportunity. Irrespective of party politics, we badly need a broader and more pointed debate about these issues.

About Mathis Lohaus

Political scientist (postdoc) at Freie Universität Berlin. For more information please visit my website. I'm interested in international organizations, norm and policy diffusion, the politics of anti-corruption, and global IR / sociology of science. Always trying to learn new things.

8 thoughts on “Steinbrück’s Missed Opportunity

  1. Thank, Mathis! Great post. I agree. Sad thing is: Nobody cares about foreign policy. If you look at Steinbrück’s website and go to “my topics”, you won’t find a single one that is related to foreign and security policy. No wonder then that they did not put much effort in this speech.

  2. Good piece. This seems to be Steinbrück’s catch-all strategy. Oscillating between clear(er) policy positions (on division of regular banking and investment banking) and ambiguity.
    It represents the general malaise of social democracy (see my post)

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