Can the leader of the SPD make positive references to one of the founding fathers of the Italian Communist Party? In any case, Lars Klingbeil showed no reservations when he began his keynote speech on foreign and security policy in Berlin on Tuesday with Antonio Gramsci’s statement that in a crisis the old is no longer there, but the new has not yet begun.
Perhaps the reference to Gramsci was also a stylistic device used by the 44-year-old party leader to give his thoughts a certain historical depth. What then followed in the lecture entitled “Turning of the Age – the Beginning of a New Era” at the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation’s zoo conference was an attempt to draw some painful, some courageous lessons from Russia’s war against Ukraine for his own party draw, which changed the whole world since February 24th.
“I suspect some of the people in this room are alarmed now,” said Klingbeil after about a third of his speech. Because by then he had already put theses into the world that few would have believed a chairman of the Social Democrats capable of. For example, the idea of demanding leadership from Germany. Klingbeil expressly claimed a new pioneering role in view of the dramatic events in Europe.
“After almost 80 years of reticence, Germany now has a new role in the international coordinate system,” he said. It must “have the claim of a leading power”. This does not mean appearing “legs apart or rabid”. This new role will require tough financial and political decisions. As a leading power, Germany must also massively promote a sovereign Europe.
But that was not the only impertinence for more traditionally thinking Social Democrats. Because the party leader and son of a soldier, as he noted, advocated a new, positive relationship with the Bundeswehr. He hopes that the Germans will develop “a new normal” in dealing with the armed forces, which has receded more and more into the background in the public debates in the period before the outbreak of the war. It was time to “pay respect and recognition to those who do their service for our country, who are willing to go to the extreme”.
The relationship between the SPD and the Bundeswehr was characterized by great tension before February 24 and even more so before the coalition agreement became known at the end of 2021. The party culture of the “Peace Party” SPD was considered to be more critical of the military. The fact that the SPD for years prevented the purchase of combat drones to protect soldiers on foreign missions and did not clearly commit to the purchase of modern combat aircraft as part of “nuclear sharing” was not well received by the troops. Both points were only clarified in the coalition agreement.
“We need a completely different security policy debate in Germany,” stated the SPD politician. Peace policy means “to see military force as a legitimate political tool”. It is not talking about war that leads to war: “Closing one’s eyes to reality leads to war.” The SPD leader recalled that during the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt, the defense budget accounted for three percent of economic output.
Klingbeil also went to court with mistakes. The Germans had “established themselves too comfortably in this world,” he complained: “We failed to recognize that things had long since developed differently. We should have seen the signals from Russia differently.” The following applies in particular to the German Social Democrats: “We made mistakes when dealing with our Eastern and Central European partners.”
As evidence for the thesis, he told of his reflex to dismiss the warning of Lithuanian Social Democrats who had come to Berlin about an attack by Putin on their country before he changed his mind. “If we hear from the Baltic states or Poland that they are afraid of being Russia’s next targets, then we have to take it seriously,” he demanded. Too little attention was paid to warnings from Eastern Europe about Russia. Now he wants to travel to Lithuania and Poland.
Klingbeil did not distance himself from the party’s highly valued Ostpolitik, nor from its second phase, in which human rights were sacrificed for the sake of stability. “I’m proud of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik,” he said. He recently announced that he would critically review the SPD’s Russia policy as part of the work on a new international program.
He avoided another issue that was critical for many social democrats. Experts are calling for consideration to be given to a joint German-French nuclear deterrent capacity in order to reduce Europe’s security policy dependence on the USA. Klingbeil, who could at least have referred to the debate that was still in its infancy, did not address Germany’s “nuclear participation”, which was controversial in the SPD.
The social democrat had prepared intensively for the speech and spoke to social democrats and experts from think tanks in Brussels, Stockholm, Bommersvik, Lisbon and Madrid. He expressly described his theses as an impetus for further debate: “I want the debate.”