The author is Fritz Stern Chair at the Brookings Institution
It is a measure of the respect German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys in this White House that she is the first European head of government to visit US President Joe Biden this week. Merkel, the oldest leader in the Western world, is stepping down after Germany’s September elections, after 16 years in power.
Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor, harbored an epic grudge against Merkel and Germany. Richard Grenell, his ambassador in Berlin, publicly courted his conservative enemies. Merkel survived them both. His trip to Washington is both a farewell and a lap of honor.
The Biden administration has struggled to bridge the gap. The levels of American troops in Germany have been increased. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The United States has no better friend than Germany. Surpassing bipartisan opposition in Congress, the White House even lifted sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Nord Stream 2 bypasses the main gas route through Ukraine to directly connect Russia and Germany. Critics fear this will undermine Ukraine’s security and open up other Central and Eastern European countries to Kremlin bullying. Blinken made it clear to Der Spiegel magazine that “waivers can be revoked”. The next congressional-mandated pipeline sanctions report is expected in mid-August.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz – a Trump loyalist and 2024 presidential hopeful – has expressed disgust at the waiver by placing a blanket suspension of Senate confirmation hearings for all pending political candidates. This includes key positions in European policy and ambassadors. They must be fulfilled for the transatlantic agenda outlined at the Biden summit meetings in June in Europe to materialize.
Diplomatic negotiations are likely to result in a last-minute deal: a German promise to compensate Ukraine for the transit costs of lost gas, for example, or to finance its energy transition. If so, it will be past time.
True, the United States also buys fossil fuels from Russia. But Nord Stream 2 is economically unnecessary and has been politically toxic to Germany’s relations with its eastern neighbors, let alone the US Congress. This distracts attention from the larger strategic issues that the United States and Europe urgently need to tackle together.
In a military conflict, what Europe adds to American might is respectable, but not essential: forward bases, specialized capabilities, and the legitimacy provided by democratic allies. But in the looming long hybrid struggle with a China seeking to reshape the world order and a Russia always on the lookout for opportunities to assert itself, Europe’s commercial, technological and regulatory forces are indispensable to the United States. United. And Germany is Europe’s economic and political center of gravity, a fact that has not escaped the Biden administration – not Russia and China.
Heads of German internal and external intelligence have warned of Russian and Chinese interference “at levels not seen since the Cold War.” Russian President Vladimir Putin published a manifesto in a German weekly in which he argued that Germany should disassociate itself from the Western alliance. An abundant column in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times praised Germany for its “attempt to rid itself of American interference.” Ransomware cyber attacks, often originating in Russia, are at an all time high.
Whether all of this is understood in Germany is less clear. Russian and Chinese experts from the German security ministries are certainly alarmed. The same is true for a growing number of lawmakers. Merkel’s continued support for Nord Stream 2 is increasingly seen as a handicap. Her attempt to relaunch EU-Russia summits has been postponed and the European Parliament refuses to ratify an EU-China investment deal she negotiated.
Of Merkel’s three potential successors, only Annalena Baerbock of the Greens seems to have fully understood what the deterioration of the European geopolitical climate demands of Germany. Yet his inexperience reduced his chances of winning.
The other two – Christian Democrat Armin Laschet and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz – have suggested the pipeline could be cut if Putin intimidates Ukraine. But both are much more focused on fighting the straw men of their own invention, such as the idea that the United States is trying to force Europe to “decouple” from China. In reality, it is China that is separating itself from the West.
Trump’s rampant hostility has forced Germany to examine the unhealthy aspects of its dependence on America. Biden, on the other hand, treats Germany as an even nation. It almost seems to be too much for the Germans to handle.