World View

Helmut Schmidt’s world

12:05 AM January 18, 2016

BERLIN—Germany lost one of its giants toward the end of 2015 when former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt died at the great age of 96. Schmidt was the country’s defense minister from 1969 to 1972, finance minister from 1972 to 1974, and federal chancellor from 1974 to 1982. Our own day and age may seem particularly tumultuous; but the years when Schmidt governed Germany were anything but quiet.

His was the age of Ostpolitik and détente, of the first global oil crisis, of economic recession, stagflation, and the return to Europe of mass unemployment. His generation confronted the scourge of domestic terrorism and witnessed a revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the rise of Solidarity in Poland.


Schmidt is remembered as a hands-on pragmatist, but above all as an accomplished crisis manager. He proved his judgment and his leadership abilities early on, when, as a city senator in Hamburg, he confronted the great flood of 1962, which devastated the city. Schmidt reinforced his image as a pragmatist by consistently voicing his deep skepticism of grand designs and long-term visions, albeit without ever renouncing his fundamental belief that there was a moral basis for his political objectives. So it should be no surprise that Karl Popper, with his pragmatic yet value-based approach, was his favorite philosopher.

But there was always more to Schmidt’s outlook on the world: As a son of Germany’s largest port city, he was a committed internationalist, genuinely interested in what lay beyond our borders. As a student of Popper, and carrying the memories and scars of the catastrophe of the Nazi years, he was acutely aware throughout his life of both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of our open societies.


Schmidt understood that a practical politician had to deal with events as they unfolded, managing them as astutely as possible. But he understood instinctively that daily events were shaped by powerful trends and forces: the strategic competition between East and West, the evolving international financial system in the age of global interdependence, and the consequences of decolonization. He was one of the first in Germany to notice the rise of China and reckon with the implications of Asia’s return to a leading role on the world stage.

For Schmidt, thorough analysis was a necessary prerequisite for all political action. He particularly abhorred an emotional approach to foreign policy. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. And, invariably, he acted on his convictions.

Together with French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he pushed for the establishment of the Group of Seven to coordinate international economic policies, and played a leadership role at the G-7’s first summit, in Rambouillet in 1975. That same year he sat next to East Germany’s leader Erich Honecker in Helsinki while signing the “Final Act” of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—a major breakthrough for détente policy and in opening the closed societies of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Warsaw Pact.

Schmidt’s relationship with US President

Jimmy Carter was difficult, as many people have chronicled. Yet Schmidt was always a strong advocate of a close transatlantic partnership, which he saw as indispensable for Germany’s security and foreign policy. In fact, his initiative to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles, a plan he set out in a major speech in 1979, was motivated above all by concerns about a potential decoupling of Europe and its US ally.

Schmidt’s principled commitment to the so-called Nato Double-Track Decision in 1979, whereby intermediate-range nuclear missiles were eventually to be eliminated from Europe, came to the chagrin of many in his own party. But it was informed by his careful and sober reading of the evolving strategic landscape.

Finally, Schmidt was a true European. He had lived through the cataclysm that extreme nationalism had wrought in Germany. He remained skeptical about notions of irreversible progress. Change for the better could emerge only from practical initiatives, not from Sunday speeches.


Thus, European integration had to be created by real policies and institutions, not by decree. So he and Giscard created the European Council (composed of the heads of Europe’s governments), which is now a major player in the European Union’s institutional setup. They pushed forward the idea of monetary integration, which came to fruition a generation later. They embodied the Franco-German commitment to a unified, peaceful Europe, able to pull its weight globally only if and when it acts in unity and with a sense of purpose.

Schmidt remained a mentor to the German people for decades after leaving active politics. International crises, global order and the future of Europe remained his fundamental preoccupations, and he saw a role and a responsibility for his own country in addressing and shaping all three of them.

His thinking had a strong normative foundation, but his keen understanding of the world led him to approach foreign policy with a sense of humility and strategic patience. It is this rare combination of morality and perseverance that is his legacy as a foreign policy thinker and practitioner. We would do well to keep his priorities and his principles uppermost in our minds, now that he is no longer here to remind us of their necessity. Project Syndicate




Frank-Walter Steinmeier is Germany’s foreign minister.

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TAGS: Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Germany, Government, Helmut Schmidt, opinion
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