A security policy déjà vu?

In October 2019 it was fifty years since Helmut Schmidt became Defence Minister. What remains of his foreign policy legacy?

An analysis by Dr. Meik Woyke, Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung and Dr. Julia Strasheim, Deputy Managing Director and Program Director European and International Politics of the Foundation.

Within NATO, Donald Trump is raising serious doubts about the USA’s loyalty to the alliance. In northern Syria, the EU was recently accused yet again of impotence in its foreign policy. And the G7, which Helmut Schmidt helped found in 1975, was in 2018 unable to agree with the US on a final Leaders' Declaration – in 2019, all that emerged was a one-page document. It seems like precisely those foreign and security policy institutions for which Helmut Schmidt was an advocate all his life are currently increasingly losing their efficacy.

Fifty years ago, Helmut Schmidt became Defence Minister in Willy Brandt’s social-liberal cabinet. As a minister and later as Federal Chancellor, Schmidt made a name for himself as an accomplished foreign and security policy expert. His period in office coincided initially with a phase of détente between the US and the Soviet Union, accompanied by isolated moves towards disarmament, such as the ABM Treaty signed in 1972. As Chancellor he was later confronted with an increasing threat level resulting from the stationing of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. After 13 years as a minister and Chancellor, Schmidt was brought down in 1982 not least as a result of the stationing of Pershing-II missiles – which he supported – and the NATO double-track decision, as whose chief initiator he is regarded. On the domestic front, the reorientation of the FDP towards economic liberalism was an added fundamental cause of the end of the social-liberal coalition between SPD and FDP.

Schmidt himself later repeatedly considered the NATO double-track decision as a foundation for the INF Treaty which followed in 1987. Especially since the termination of the treaty in August 2019, many are speaking of a déjà vu of the kind of security policy that Schmidt knew and shaped. In Russia and the US, nuclear modernisation programmes are in full swing. In addition to these nuclear superpowers, states with smaller nuclear arsenals, such as China, India or Pakistan, are investing in their capabilities. “The new cold war” is the title ZDF thus gave its recent documentary about nuclear armament.

It seems like nothing remains of Schmidt’s foreign policy legacy. But despite the current challenges, there are big opportunities, too. This is because the understanding of what constitutes effective security policy, how questions of security are discussed, and who is allowed to join the conversation has changed significantly since Schmidt was in office. That would not always have been to his taste.

The example of civil society: Today as in the past, security policy continues to be dominated on the international stage by nation states; nationally, discourse on security policy is still primarily conducted in specialist forums and between elites. However, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 1997 Ottawa Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, for instance, demonstrate how transnational, non-governmental organisations increasingly influence the debate. Powerful initiatives include the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The influence of civil society presents concrete opportunities for solving global security challenges. Firstly, legally binding international treaties are always hard to achieve, but through the work of movements like ICAN new security policy norms can be established, for example – as the NGO coalition itself argues – “the condemnation of nuclear weapons based on their catastrophic humanitarian consequences”. Secondly, research shows that NGOs can reframe security risks by steering the discourse away from national security towards humanitarian security. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons does not refer solely to national security interests, it also points to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons for the environment, humanity and socioeconomic development. Such reframing has great potential for attracting more attention to topics, for forcing political action or for the development of coalitions between security policy players and environmental or human rights movements.

Looking back to the 1970s, it is clear that Helmut Schmidt would have viewed such an involvement by civil society with scepticism. His was a traditional understanding of politics, where policy was shaped by parties and elected representatives in parliaments. The political demands and innovative forms of articulation coming from the new social movements were foreign to him. Schmidt viewed the street protests against nuclear armament and for more ecology with mounting unease. He interpreted the impressive 1981 peace demonstration in Bonn’s Hofgarten, close to the Federal Chancellery, primarily as a challenge to the free and democratic constitutional order and the established political system.

The example of women: Women are still underrepresented in leading foreign and security positions. When Schmidt became Defence Minister 50 years ago, he had only one international colleague, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Ceylon. Today there are 18 Defence Ministers in office worldwide, among them Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Germany, Florence Parly in France and Margarita Robles in Spain. ICAN is led by the lawyer Beatrice Fihn, and the Campaign to Ban Landmines by human rights activist Jody Williams.

Merely increasing the number of female office bearers does not necessarily lead to a more peaceful world – this would just emphasise the clichés that women are “born peacemakers” or that men are or tend to be inevitably violent. But the growing role of women in security policy can lead to more efficient decision-making processes, since in diverse teams more perspectives come to bear and so more options for action are available. For instance, research indicates that, in male-dominated teams, organisational cultures can develop that either do not recognise non-military conflict resolution mechanisms or sideline them as feminine, naïve and thus inacceptable.

That was not Schmidt’s way of thinking. During his political career he worked trustingly and successfully with numerous female politicians from the local to the national level. Yet his frequent use of technical military language in discussions of domestic security or defence policy issues is striking, as is his emphasis of his familiarity with the soldierly habitus. In his first book, “Defence or Retaliation” published in 1961, which served as Schmidt’s security policy guideline, he used numerous military and weapons-related terms – one the one hand, certainly appropriate to the topic, on the other hand, turning a blind eye to the humanitarian dimension of the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union in the cold war. In the face of the sense of threat experienced by men and women across broad sections of the population, the answers Schmidt formulated – entirely rationally – were solely political.

The example of non-western players: The world has become more complex since Schmidt’s time in office. Bipolarity has long since given way to multipolar geopolitics. New political arenas with unfamiliar forms of expression and protest have arisen, meeting with a broad public response and enlivening the debate in traditional bodies and institutions. It is not only with regard to arms control that this signifies a strengthening of ever more assertive and revisionist players outside of “the West” that enjoy growing economic and military capacities and work with other political systems, ideologies and interests, such as China. Time and again there are calls – including from President Trump – to include China in a new arms control treaty. This is often a pretext, however, for avoiding serious discussions, as the 2019 Peace Report highlights.

Schmidt recognised the global importance of China early on and urged Willy Brandt to establish diplomatic relations with the country in the early years of the SPD-FDP coalition. After himself becoming head of government, Schmidt was the first ever German Chancellor to visit China, in October and November 1975. Yet his picture of China showed clearly recognisable ambivalence: In the foreground were strategic military and above all economic considerations. Commenting critically on the domestic policies pursued by Beijing was not in keeping with Schmidt’s political understanding of the sovereignty and autonomy of nation states. Schmidt also questioned whether Russia had really broken international law with its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. After all, he argued, the security interests of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, were quite understandable.

There is no doubt that security policy has changed considerably over the past 50 years. But what has survived the change is Helmut Schmidt’s understanding of a Germany that in its foreign and security policy is firmly anchored in transatlantic and European structures and that champions values such as democracy, liberty and the rule of law – in today’s Germany, that has long been the broad political consensus. Helmut Schmidt’s actions as a convinced European and multilateralist thus continue to be relevant and provide a helpful compass in future conflicts.

Original article at ipg-journal, 27.10.2019.

More discussions at FOTAR2020 conference 30.1.2020 in Hamburg.

In October 2019 it was fifty years since Helmut Schmidt became Defence Minister. What remains of his foreign policy legacy? We are discussing this question at FOTAR2020 conference (30/01 in Hamburg). Photo: Fritz Rust, Imago

Dr. Meik Woyke, Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung. Photo: BKHS/Zapf

Dr. Julia Strasheim, Deputy Managing Director and Program Director European and International Politics of the Foundation. Photo: BKHS/Zapf