Steinmeier is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), holds a doctorate in law and was formerly a career civil servant. He was a close aide of Gerhard Schröder when Schröder was Prime Minister of Lower Saxony during most of the 1990s, and served as Schröder’s chief of staff from 1996. When Schröder became Chancellor of Germany in 1998, Steinmeier was appointed Under-Secretary of State in the German Chancellery with the responsibility for the intelligence services. From 1999 to 2005 he served as Chief of Staff of the Chancellery.
Following the 2005 federal election, Steinmeier became Foreign Minister in the first grand coalition government of Angela Merkel, and from 2007 he additionally held the office of vice chancellor. In 2008, he briefly served as acting chairman of his party. He was the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in the 2009 federal election, but his party lost the election and he left the federal cabinet to become leader of the opposition. Following the 2013 federal election he again became Minister for Foreign Affairs in Merkel’s second grand coalition. In November 2016 he was announced as the candidate of the governing coalition consisting of his own party and the CDU/CSU for President of Germany, and thus became the presumptive elect as the coalition holds a large majority in the Federal Convention; he left the cabinet on 27 January 2017. He was elected as President by the Federal Convention on 12 February 2017. He acquired the necessary majority in the first round of voting by receiving 931 electoral votes out of a total of 1260 votes (73.9%).
Steinmeier belongs to the right wing of the SPD, known as reformists and moderates. As chief of staff he was a principal architect of Agenda 2010, the Schröder government’s controversial reforms of the welfare state. His lenient policies towards countries such as Russia and China have earned him criticism both in Germany and internationally, and he has been criticized for prioritizing German business interests over human rights.
In the past, Human Rights Watch has labeled Steinmeier as “Realpolitik advocate”, for whom, “when it comes to defining his relationship with countries such as Russia and China, human rights play only a subordinate role”.
In Steinmeier’s opinion, the “[r]ejection of capital punishment is one of the keystones of German human-rights policy. The death penalty goes against our fundamental ethic and moral principles”. He personally called for the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan; capital punishment in Uzbekistan has been abolished since 2008. In April 2014, he summoned the Egyptian ambassador Mohamed Higazy after a Cairo court sentenced 683 individuals to death for inciting violence during protests in summer 2013, following the military overthrow of elected President Mohammed Morsi. Following the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt, he warned that any move by Turkey to reinstate the death penalty would derail its efforts to join the European Union.
In response to the protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election against the disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Steinmeier condemned what he called “brutal actions” against demonstrators in Tehran and summoned the Iranian ambassador Alireza Sheikhattar to explain.
In August 2016, Steinmeier labelled U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a “hate preacher”