Explainer: SPD Position Paper on International Politics during the “Zeitenwende”

On January 13, 2023, the SPD caucus in the Bundestag published a new Positionspapier focused on foreign and security policy in the era of the Zeitenwende. In the following blog post, we break down what a Positionspapier is, what themes this particular Positionspapier touches on, and how those themes might play out in the new few months.

What is a Positionspapier?

In Germany, the major political parties set out a Parteiprogramm, or Grundsatzprogramm (which roughly translates to “party manifesto”) every few decades, setting out the party’s major goals and values for the next few election cycles. The Parteiprogramm is meant to capture the party’s political identity and character, and generally sets out long-term goals that the party hopes to achieve. Because the Parteiprogramm is usually drawn in broad strokes, it tends to be fairly abstract. The SPD’s last Grundsatzprogrammm, the Hamburger Programm, was released in 2007, and continues to guide the party’s broad direction today. The discussion and conceptualization of the Grundsatzprogramm took eight years, and attempted to set out a direction for the party in the 21st century while continuing to prioritize the party’s core values: freedom, justice, and solidarity.

Wahlprogramme, which are similar to party platforms, are put out before elections, and set out short- and medium-term goals for specific elections. They generally try to take the more abstract concepts set out in Parteiprogramme and concretize them. The parties’ Wahlprogramme can then be compared before major elections – for example, in 2021, before Bundestag elections, the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik compared the security and foreign policy platforms of all the major parties. Comparisons of Wahlprogramme tend to be more popular than the papers themselves among the general electorate, as they are generally less detailed and substantial than the documents themselves.

To supplement these Parteiprogramme and Wahlprogramme, parties occasionally release Positionspapiere, or position papers. Positionspapiere usually have a much narrower scope, focusing on one political topic or area. Like Wahlprogamme, they lay out short- to medium-term goals, and often serve as a way for parties to self-reflect and put forward a concrete platform for a policy area. These Positionspapiere are made publicly available; you can find SPD documents, including Positionspapiere, here.

All of these political documents reflect the fact that political parties play much more of a role in setting the agenda of elected lawmakers of that party in Germany than in the United States. Though the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) generally set out a party platform (though, notably, the RNC did not set out a party platform in 2020), they tend not to be as important as the Parteiprogramme and Wahlprogramme in Germany.

What’s in it?

The paper is divided into eight sections: Putin’s war of aggression as a turning point; peace and security as cornerstones of social democratic international politics; partnerships with the Global South; sovereign Europe; the transatlantic partnership; relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific region; disarmament and arms control; and foreign policy as a societal task.

The first portion of the paper is dedicated to sketching out Germany’s response to the war in Ukraine, both past and present. It underscores the 12 billion euro commitment that Germany has made to the war so far, and highlights the break that sending weapons and gear into an active war zone represents for the country. It also emphasizes the importance of partnership and acting in concert with international partners, underlining that it stands against unilateral national actions. The help that Germany has lent to fleeing Ukrainians and Ukrainian troops is another central theme, as are the wide-ranging sanctions that a host of Western countries have applied to Russia. The paper underscores the importance of laying plans for a Ukrainian “Marshall Plan” now and setting up a platform for rebuilding the country. The paper then moves into the importance of holding open the possibility of diplomatic talks, even though there is no trust in Russian leadership at the moment and emphasizes that there must be continued attempts to move Russia towards ending the war. Media coverage of the Positionspapier has generally focused on this part of the paper, highlighting its emphasis on diplomacy and the possibility of diplomatic talks with Russia.

It is clear that the SPD imagines Germany as occupying a central role in ensuring the peace and security of the European continent in the future, but is also aware that in a multipolar world, there is a threat of German and EU importance waning. Girding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the UN, is therefore a priority for the caucus, as is forging new partnerships and strengthening existing ones. The paper expands upon the vision of Germany as central to European peace and security in the fourth section, sovereign Europe. It emphasizes that the EU is crucial to German politics, and advocates for the continuous development of the bloc, highlighting the importance of the Franco-German partnership in this area and advocating for increased European integration to strengthen the bloc (with a focus on the accession of Western Balkan states). Ultimately, it says, the EU will increasingly have to be responsible for its own security, and will have to take concrete steps to achieve this (it lists the buildup of a rapid reaction force, the establishment of a permanent operative EU headquarters, and filling in gaps in air defense as concrete steps).

Despite the paper’s emphasis on the EU’s responsibility for its own security, it does underline the continued importance of NATO and the transatlantic alliance, though the section on the transatlantic partnership is notably brief. Though brief, the section on the transatlantic partnership highlights the continued importance of working with the United States on climate and energy politics, rules-based international order, and democratic social policy. But even in the section on the transatlantic partnership, the paper mentions Germany’s desire to increase its responsibility in the security sphere, making the case that doing so will strengthen the transatlantic partnership further. The transatlantic partnership remains deeply important, but this paper clearly emphasizes the caucus’ desire to work towards the goal of strategic sovereignty.

The paper dedicates significant space to building partnerships with countries in the Global South, arguing that as Germany increases spending on security and defense, they must also raise spending for development cooperation. The paper focuses especially on the opportunities that new progressive administrations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America offer for partnership, emphasizing climate change and questions of energy and energy transition as particular areas for cooperation. This section also touches on the importance of the export economy, cultural and educational policy, and humanitarian assistance. It also lays out a vision for pragmatic foreign policy, saying that the caucus’ preference is to cooperate with countries that share their values, but that it realistically realizes it must cooperate with governments that are not democratic in order to tackle global challenges like climate change, pandemics, and food insecurity.

The paper elucidates the caucus’ thinking on its relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific region, saying that its upcoming China strategy will be guided by a need to reduce dependency on China and reinforce Germany’s own sovereignty. Germany’s China strategy should also be accompanied by a European China strategy built on shared Western values. The relationship with China should ultimately be defined along three planes: partnership, competition, and system rivalry. In other words, there must be cooperation with China in areas where it is possible and necessary (like climate change and nuclear disarmament), but also a recognition that systemic rivalry is growing as China grows more self-confident and aggressive. As this competition between two systems of government develops, Germany and other Western countries must offer attractive opportunities for partnership and cooperation to countries that are currently being courted by China. The paper also makes clear that China is not the only member of the Indo-Pacific region that matters to Germany, and sets out a goal of building a cooperative bloc in the region with like-minded partners.

The last two sections of the paper reinforce the caucus’ commitment to nuclear disarmament and arms control, especially as Russia makes threats of nuclear escalation, and highlight the connection between internal and external security and domestic and foreign policy, making clear that German industry has a role to play in implementing a just transition and achieving strategic autonomy.

Why does it matter?

The SPD has been in the process of rethinking its foreign and security policy since December 2021, before the Russian attack on Ukraine. The caucus’ Positionspapier was released about a week before the international commission, steered by the SPD’s headquarters, released another paper on their rethinking of foreign and security policy.

The historical significance of Germany’s foreign policy reorientation cannot be understated – the war in Ukraine has forced a complete rethink of Germany’s place in Europe. Other European countries are undergoing a similar process – French President Macron’s decision to increase military spending by more than 115 billion euros signals a fundamental difference in the way European countries think about their role in the security sphere, and parallels Germany’s acknowledgement of the need to modernize and invest in the Bundeswehr. An announcement of increased German-French cooperation on January 22nd underlines the similar processes that both countries are undergoing, and their shared goal of increasing European military capacity. Even Switzerland is considering authorizing the re-export of munitions, in what would be a stunning step for the country.

New defense minister Boris Pistorius will have to negotiate a number of near-term foreign policy challenges, as the war in Ukraine nears its one-year mark. A recent decision to send tanks to Ukraine came after rounds of intense negotiation with the United States and other allies, demonstrating the continued need to work in close coordination with allies in making these significant defense decisions, not least to avoid escalating the war into a war between NATO and Russia. But there will be foreign policy challenges beyond the near-term, and this Positionspapier lays out a roadmap and vision for Germany’s foreign policy in the next few years, while taking into account the short- and medium-term challenges.

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