COM 02/2016

Helmut Schmidt: The Global Chancellor

Kristina Spohr, Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, author of “The Global Chancellor: Helmut Schmidt and the Reshaping of the International Order”


In 1982, near the end of Helmut Schmidt’s chancellorship, Der Spiegel delivered a damning verdict on his eight and a half years in power. It described Willy Brandt, his predecessor, as ‘a bad head of government with a good record in power’, praising the achievements of Brandt’s Ostpolitik in revolutionizing Bonn’s relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union. By contrast Schmidt was dismissed as a ‘good chancellor with a bad record, because few things stood out or endured as proof of success’. Der Spiegel also claimed that his foreign policy had not been shaped by ‘concepts’ or ‘intellectual models’ but was essentially reactive. Schmidt was a ‘doer’ (Macher) who lacked broader vision and primarily concerned himself with trying to solve immediate problems, so that ‘little endured of historical significance’.

This has also been the verdict of many scholars. For example, historian Ronald J. Granieri in 2005 featured Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl in what he dubs the ‘Christian Democrat Hall of Fame’. For the ‘Social Democratic Hall of Fame’ he linked Brandt –‘the great titan of the post-war SPD’ – with Gerhard Schröder on the grounds that he brought the party back to power in 1998 after ‘sixteen years in the wilderness’ due to what was widely perceived as the divisive effects of Schmidt’s ‘neo-Cold Warrior’ policies that split the party and in turn destroyed his coalition. Even essentially sympathetic Schmidt biographers, such as Hartmut Soell, Hans-Joachim Noack, Martin Rupps and Gunter Hofmann, have praised his varied talents, political skill, and persuasive rhetoric while leaving open his place in history. Moreover, much of the literature has delivered their judgments on his chancellorship within an essentially German and/or European setting, without contextualizing him in the global arena of the 1970s.

When Schmidt died on 10 November 2015 – aged 96 – the cascade of obituaries offered in one short moment multiple perspectives on him as a man of the century ‘Jahrhundertmann’. After thirty years as an elder statesman Schmidt, they pointed out, had won the respect and even affection of most Germans – what the Badische Zeitung called ‘the omniscient counsellor (Universalratgeber) of the German peo-ple’. Nevertheless, the verdict on his chancellorship remained lukewarm. It was clear that the admired elder statesman image never entirely superseded the original somewhat patronizing appraisal of Schmidt as a sober ‘pragmatist’ and ‘competent’ manager in the face of crises such as Baader Meinhof terrorism in 1977 (the Schleyer murder and the ‘Landshut’ highjacking) and as a chancellor who had made little progress on the really big issue of the ‘German question’.

For example, the obituary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung praised Schmidt for his ‘power and elegance’ but concluded that the ‘achievements of his political life (politische Lebensleistung) did not reach the heights attained by Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl’; nor was he ‘idolized’ (umschwaermt) like Brandt. In other words, compared with those regarded as the ‘best’ leaders of the Federal Republic, Schmidt’s chancellorship was found lacking.

In my new book, The Global Chancellor, I take a different   view of Helmut Schmidt’s place in history, by setting his chancellorship in a wider, global context. From this perspective on the 1970s he emerges  as a pivotal figure, shaping inter- national affairs in  a  crisis-ridden decade. This should banish the clichéd image of Schmidt as a mere ‘doer’ and pragmatic ‘crisis-man- ager’ and a man devoid of visions. Instead, my re- search reveals Schmidt as an intellectual statesman who was not only determined to shape the course of events but also did so from ideas that he had delineated long before taking office. Through a skillfully crafted policy of peace and stability he was able to transform West Germany – the product of defeat and division in 1945 – into a protagonist on the global stage.

The Global Chancellor changes our perspective on Helmut Schmidt in the following distinctive ways:

Instead, my research reveals Schmidt as an intellectual statesman who was not only determined to shape the course of events but also did so from ideas that he had delineated long before taking office. Through a skillfully crafted policy of peace and stability he was able to transform West Germany – the product of defeat and division in 1945 – into a protagonist on the global stage.

The Global Chancellor changes our perspective on Helmut Schmidt in the following distinctive ways:

It breaks out of the German mould and connects up with larger historiography about the 1970s as an era of globalization.

It presents Schmidt as a leader who, uniquely, was qualified and ready to address the two central features of this broader context: the world economic crisis and the evolving global Cold War. This ability was rooted in his conceptual hinterland as both a trained economist and a defence intellectual.

It explores his mode of leadership in foreign pol- icy, largely overlooked, emphasizing (a) dialogue with other leaders, (b) informal summitry, and (c) the cultivation of ‘political friendships’.

In the process, I argue, Chancellor Schmidt left lasting legacies – notably the institutions of the G7 and the European Monetary System (EMS) and also the NATO dual-track decision of 1979. In doing so, he raised the status of the still semi-sovereign West Germany to that of a ‘worldpower’, sitting as an equal at NATO’s nuclear top table with the Western victor powers of 1945.

Schmidt: The Man Behind The Statesman

Schmidt was catapulted into power in May 1974 at a moment of acute crisis – both domestically over the Guillaume spy scandal at the heart of Brandt’s government and internationally over the feared dis- integration of the capitalist system.

What had formed the man behind the statesman? A seminal moment was Schmidt’s experience as a twenty-two-year-old soldier in Hitler’s First Panzer Division fighting its way to Leningrad and Moscow in 1941. This left him with an enduring sense of Russia – both its enormous size and its glaring backwardness – and an awareness of what war was actually like.

After 1945 Schmidt could have gone in several directions. He had always dreamed of being an architect; he was also an accomplished musician. But already a married man, he had to start earning a living as soon as possible and so took a degree in economics before working in local government in his native Hamburg. Here he dealt first-hand with the huge problems of reconstruction and infrastructure after the Second World War. He joined the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) in 1946 and, moving into national politics from 1953 as a member of the Bundestag, his main brief was to speak for his party on transportation and economic affairs.

The Defence Intellectual

Although Schmidt was trained in economics, once in Bonn his passion became military security and he soon made his name as one of the SPD’s leading defence experts. Unlike most Social Democrats he supported German rearmament within NATO and the country’s alliance with America – even serving as a reserve officer in the newly formed Bundeswehr. Two major best-selling books during the Sixties Verteidigung oder Vergeltung (1961) and Strategie des Gleichgewichts (1969) served as his entrée into what he liked to call ‘the American defence community’– gaining him a respectful readership among scholars, strategists, and policymakers. A regular visitor and speaker in America and Britain, Schmidt enhanced his visibility and appeal as a defence intellectual by impressive fluency in the English language.

Underpinning all his speeches and writings was the pursuit of peace and stability, founded on key strategic ideas such as the military balance of power and the avoidance of even limited nuclear warfare. This reflected a clear understanding of divided Germany’s vulnerability astride the Iron Curtain.

Schmidt therefore came to the Defence Ministry in 1969 with clear concepts and visions, which he then implemented self-consciously in the Bundeswehr White Papers of 1970 and 1971. These represented one of the most important stocktakings of the German armed forces since their inception in 1955 and a benchmark for their reform in the context of détente and Ostpolitik.

The Making of the ‘World Economist’

Suddenly thrown into the position of Finance Minister in 1972-4, Schmidt was forced back to his intellectual roots as an economist. Now, however, the is- sues were global in scope and of existential urgency: the Bretton Woods financial system had collapsed, the first oil crisis exploded, and the world economy was sliding into the alarming disease of stagflation that defied all the verities of postwar Keynesianism.

So Schmidt had to apply his expertise and conceptual thinking to a situation for which there were no textbook solutions or reliable institutions.

In the Finance Ministry and then as Chancellor he was able to employ his economic skills on an international plane and to lasting effect as he developed a truly global vision, expressed in new notions of ‘interdependence’ and innovative practices of ‘policy coordination’. These notions, I argue, are crucial to understanding his response to the new era of globalization.

In place of the Bretton Woods-era regulatory mechanisms Schmidt helped create a milder form of international discipline in the form of ‘surveillance’ administered via personal diplomacy between key political leaders. His model was the Library Group of four key finance ministers in 1973-4, including Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and James Callaghan. This assumed new significance as a tool of world economic governance once these men became national political leaders, and their inner circle was gradually institutionalized as the G7 through the summits of 1975-78.

The credit for this does not lie exclusively with Schmidt, but his rapid emergence as a ‘world economist’ (Weltökonom) was a critical part of the process.

To be sure the G7 was no panacea and the G7 summits later degenerated into bureaucratic routine and media spectacle. But, between Rambouillet in 1975 and Bonn in 1978, the G7 did play a significant role in stabilizing the West economically. This, together with his initiative in co-founding the European Monetary System, should be recognized as part of the chancellor’s enduring institutional legacy.

The Strategist of Balance and Security

The crisis of capitalism preoccupied Schmidt in the early years of his chancellorship: he saw prosperity and economic stability as essential for shoring up lib- eral democracy. This, in turn, was vital for Western survival in the Cold War. But Schmidt – the strate- gist of balance – did not lose sight of more tradi- tional Cold War issues, notably Germany’s military security at the front line of the East-West conflict. He always emphasized the centrality of the alliance with America for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Building on Brandt’s Ostpolitik, however, he was convinced that the country needed to keep ex- tending relations with the Soviet bloc – a conviction first formed during an epic car journey to Prague, Warsaw, Moscow and Leningrad in 1966.

Ostpolitik after 1974 was, however, harder to con- duct than during the détente era of the early 1970s because superpower relations deteriorated sharply in the second half of the decade. Moreover, Brandt had already attained most of the immediately feasible objectives in his Eastern Treaties. Yet Schmidt did notch up a significant achievement during his last five years as chancellor. This was NATO’s ‘du- al-track’ decision, which he was crucial in shaping through the ideas he articulated in a major lecture in London in October 1977 and through his diplomacy during and after the Guadeloupe summit of January 1979.

The ‘dual-track’ decision – though apparently arcane – deserves note as a significant episode in the story of the Cold War as a whole. Of course, it was in part a stop-gap measure to maintain the cohesion of the Alliance against a continued Soviet arms buildup in Europe. But this was not merely reactive politics. The dual-track concept reflected Schmidt’s basic belief in the need for an equilibrium of military forces, not merely for its own sake but as instrument of peacemaking.

This equilibrium could be achieved either by a Western nuclear buildup to counter the Soviet ad- vantage in theatre nuclear forces – the so-called Euromissiles or SS-20s. Alternatively, the equilibrium could be established by negotiating a reduction of these weapons – ideally, for Schmidt, down to their complete elimination on each side.

NATO’s dual-track decision of December 1979 entailed threatening to modernize while being equally ready to negotiate. Negotiations got nowhere and so, under the automaticity built into the 1979 decision, NATO deployed Cruise and Pershing II missiles in 1983, especially in the Federal Republic, Britain and Italy.

The German deployment occurred only after huge domestic political battles within the SPD and on the streets, which helped to bring down Schmidt, and it was his successor, Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who pushed it through. Kohl later gained the credit, together with Margaret Thatcher, for sustaining NATO’s credibility during the New Cold War. Yet he was largely carrying through the policy that Schmidt had designed.

Moreover, the other facet of the dual-track policy – negotiation – was also realized a few years later, when the firmness of the Western alliance in the early 1980s facilitated the 1987 Soviet-American treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces. As a result a whole category of nuclear weapons was removed on both sides, for the first time since 1945. This had always been Schmidt’s hope and aim. I argue that he therefore deserves some credit for this major step in dispelling the nuclear nightmare in Europe and thus in defusing the Cold War.

Global Statesmanship

Schmidt’s diplomacy and achievements grew out of a long history of thought and action. For him (like his close friend and acclaimed statesman Henry Kissinger) the balance of power was a guiding concept. Yet Schmidt’s Gleichgewichtsstrategie focused primarily on a military equilibrium in Europe, whereas Kissinger was more concerned with the balancing acts of global geopolitics between Washing- ton, Moscow and Beijing.

Even so, Schmidt’s vision of the world ever since his 1961 book did embrace the challenges of the People’s Republic of China as a military heavy- weight and the world’s emerging third power in what he called ‘tripolarity’ and ‘the world triangle’.

Above all, he was forced to think globally because of Germany’s sensitive place in a matrix of power and vulnerability between the United States and the Soviet Union, so that any problem in the global Cold War could easily backfire in Berlin.

What is more Schmidt, unlike Kissinger, under- stood the problematic of foreign policy in the 1970s to include not only power and diplomacy but also the global economy. Schmidt, after all, was a serious macro-economist turned politician who saw the global economic crisis as the most pressing inter- national problem of the mid-1970s. He also made a significant contribution to addressing it through his conduct of Weltwirtschaftpolitik and the creation of the G7 – an institution that barely figures in Kissinger’s voluminous memoirs. Indeed Kissinger, according to his most recent biographer Niall Ferguson, was ‘deeply skeptical about the claims of economics’. In Schmidt’s opinion, Kissinger approached the world economic crisis ‘from the traditional view- point of power politics’, whereas the German chancellor developed ideas of interdependence that were foreign to Kissinger’s more traditional approach to state relations, constructed around a hierarchy of powers playing a complex chess game at a distance.

Interdependence of the sort envisaged by Schmidt entailed multilateral engagement in a cooperative approach to global challenges; a theme he further developed in a series of lectures on grand strategy that he gave at Yale soon after the end of his chancellorship, published with the striking subtitle The Anachronism of National Strategies in an Interdependent World. He was, it might reasonably be said, more attuned than Kissinger to what many scholars now see as the key challenge of the 1970s – what Ferguson himself has called ‘the shock of the global’.

‘Political Friendships’ and Direct Dialogue

In a speech at Harvard in 1979, Schmidt reflected that ‘partnership in security involves trust and predictability. For that reason personal and direct con- tact between political leaders is indispensable’. This meant face-to-face meetings because they were the only real way to gauge the other side, to get a feel for his counterpart’s character, concerns and reactions. Out of such meetings, regularly conducted, he claimed, came a clear estimation of the people you could rely on, and how far they would remain loyal despite all the other pressures.

Schmidt believed that in special circumstances one could even speak of ‘political friendships’. The supreme example was what he called his ‘belle entente’ with Giscard. Through their meetings, he observed in 1985, the two of them became so close that they could intuit each other’s reactions, making a telephone call necessary only as final confirmation. The French president was truly special but Schmidt also enjoyed close political friendships with other statesmen – not only Kissinger but also Callaghan and American president Gerald Ford. It also mattered immensely that these statesmen could communicate freely and easily via the shared language of English, dispensing with interpreters and thereby allowing more intimate conversations. Schmidt did not trust Jimmy Carter, and vice versa. Their relationship was intense, often caustic (Schmidt had dismissed Carter in 1976 as an ‘unknown farmer governor’ from Georgia). But even though their personal friction proved diplomatically poisonous at times, it did not prevent them reaching compromise solutions.

Communication in a free, informal and direct manner at the highest level was fundamental to the 1 + 3 network that Schmidt helped to establish at Guadeloupe between West Germany, France, America and Britain. The Chancellor disliked the term ‘summit’, because it suggested something rather pompous and out of the ordinary and raised unrealistic public expectations. He preferred and privileged frank exchanges of views that were ‘personal’ and ‘confidential’ – key words in his diplomatic lexicon. Schmidt was convinced that summitry in this form fostered understanding of the interests and motives of other nations and forced the participants to define and present their own positions in plausible ways. Even more important, the leaders had to go further and discern shared interests, reach compromise positions, and advance common action.

Schmidt as ‘Double Intepreter’

Dialogues like the one at Guadeloupe took place between allies and friends. But Schmidt firmly believed that such personal communication was equally necessary with adversaries – all the more so when the international climate was cool, if not outright hostile. He told two American journalists in 1981 that his ‘basic philosophy in foreign policy’ was to be ‘calculable, put yourself in the shoes of the other guy, on the other side of the table, and try to evaluate the situation from his point of view’. In ‘normal times’, Schmidt went on, ‘this sounds trivial, but not when there are tensions’. And the tensions were very real by the end of his chancellorship as superpower relations degenerated in the Second Cold War after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and the Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

‘It’s dangerous to be an enigma to the Russians’, he stressed in 1981, and for ‘the Russians to be an enigma to us is very, very dangerous’. Personal communication with adversaries might not create trust, as it did with allies, but it did at least bring a degree of predictability to the table. Knowing the ‘Other’ had, in fact, been Schmidt’s aim ever since his first journey to Moscow in 1966. But by the end of his career this idea had been refined into his concept of the ‘double interpreter’ (Doppeldolmetscher), not merely observing the superpowers from the side- lines but acting as interlocutor between them.

Schmidt did not like the words ‘intermediary’ (Vermittler) or ‘broker’ (Makler). For one thing, he insisted, the FRG was not equidistant between the two superpowers but, instead, operated as a full partner in the Western alliance. And he did not wish simply to act as messenger-boy; he wanted to ‘help each side understand each other’ – to ‘translate, in both directions’. Even more than this: to influence their actions, especially over arms control. He hoped ‘to open up the Soviet Union in its very heart to negotiations’ and to persuade the Americans to take seriously German interests as the cockpit of Cold War Europe.

The chancellor’s objective, going beyond mere mutual translation, was to draw the two superpowers from maximalist, megaphone diplomacy and prepare them for compromise (Kompromissbereitschaft). He was sure this could only be effected through face- to-face dialogue of the sort that had become normal during the era of détente but had stopped complete- ly after the superpower summit in Vienna in 1979. Hence his mission to Moscow in July 1980, to keep open channels of communication with Brezhnev at a time when no other Western leader would go near the Kremlin.

Yet the chancellor always understood that, for West Germany, foreign policy had to be conducted with circumspection. That was his country’s unique predicament stemming from the burdens of its history: the Kaiserreich, the Hitler era and what he called ‘the Auschwitz past’. Schmidt was consequently at pains to avoid any impression of over-assertiveness, frequently letting others take the front seat – especially Giscard, who was persuaded to host the meeting of the Western Big Four at Guadeloupe. He was equally sensitive to the legacies of 1945, which had left Germany occupied, divided and denied the trap- pings of power, including nuclear weapons.

Schmidt the statesman always worked within these historical parameters, even at his zenith on the world stage. As one of his party buddies from Ham- burg remarked: ‘He is convinced most of the time that he’s the only real leader in the western world. He is also probably right. The problem is he’s German’.

Ignominious End, Important Legacies

So, to come back to the clichés that I mentioned at the beginning: Schmidt the diplomatist was not merely reactive. He held firm ideas about international relations, both with regard to method (con- ducting them through personal communication be- tween political leaders) and also in terms of goals for West Germany in an increasingly interdependent world. He was an intellectual statesman, and he operated on the global plane.

Yet Schmidt came to an ignominious end, deserted by his coalition partners and denounced by much of his own party. Walking out of the Chancellery in Bonn on the evening of 1 October 1982 with a bunch of roses, he cut a forlorn figure. So was he destined, as Kissinger asserted, to go down in history as ‘a transitional figure’, rather than the equal of great German chancellors like Bismarck and Adenauer, Brandt and Kohl?

Schmidt did live in an era of profound transition, economically as well as geopolitically. But he was not merely the object of these systemic changes and not just a short-term crisis-manager. He helped shape global affairs in directions that he believed would best serve West German security and global stability. With the G7, he created a new forum for global management that also added diplomatic clout to West Germany’s position as an economic Weltmacht. In security matters, the Bonn republic could never be a world power because of its divided nature and semi-sovereign status. Yet through Schmidt’s pro-active involvement in nuclear politics and his role as double interpreter between the superpowers he elevated West Germany to the top table in international politics.

Schmidt thus conducted what he called Weltpolitik – giving this historically fraught term new meaning in an era of global Cold War and economic interdependence. In the process, I argue, he contributed to the eventual resolution of the German question, though not to the same degree and with the same visibility as Brandt or Kohl. This is a more speculative point, which, in fact, I debated with Schmidt himself just three weeks before his death. Namely that he transformed West Germany’s 1 + 3 relationship with the Western victor powers into an equal partnership of the Big Four. And as double interpreter, maintaining both Adenauer’s allegiance to Westbindung and Brandt’s commitment to Ostpolitik, in unpropitious international circumstances he succeeded in raising Bonn’s credibility with both superpowers.

In the event it fell to Kohl to seize the historical moment for German unification, which he grasped with both hands. Unity was accomplished peacefully through the 2 + 4 formula, whereby the two Germanies negotiated their future in partnership with all the victor powers, from East as well as West. But one could reasonably claim that 2 + 4 was made possible because of what had been achieved via 1 + 3 and double interpretation. This, too, was part of Helmut Schmidt’s rich legacy as the global chancellor.