Is the United States Germany’s strategic rival? Germany is the fourth-largest economy in the world, a leading liberal democratic power, the core state in the European Union, an active NATO ally, and home to the headquarters of the U.S. military’s European and African commands. Its cooperation is vital to U.S. national interests. Yet U.S.-German relations have deteriorated over the past four years. Last year, even Chancellor Angela Merkel, formerly a champion of close German-U.S. relations, suggested that Germans and their E.U. partners might need to consider the United States as rivals, as they already regard Russia and China. The new U.S. president has an opportunity to revitalize the U.S.-German partnership by thinking bigger and broader about a new series of centerpiece projects. Four areas of possible cooperation in which to promote positive and forward-looking solutions to shared problems are: transatlantic security, trade, public health, and climate change.
Serious tensions between the partners developed during the 2003 American intervention in Iraq and were inflamed again by the 2015 WikiLeaks allegations of NSA spying on the German leadership. President Barack Obama restored trust between the two governments by developing a strong personal relationship with Merkel that helped make Germany the preeminent U.S. partner in Europe.
Since 2017, President Donald Trump’s trade war, unilateralist approach to Iran and to climate change, and exacerbation of long-simmering differences over defense commitments have dangerously frayed relations — and revived distrust — between Washington and Berlin. According to a September 2020 Pew Research Center poll, the percentage of Germans who regard the United States favorably has declined from 57 percent to 26 percent during Trump’s presidency. The aggressive and insulting manner in which Trump allegedly dealt with Merkel in their telephone calls, reportedly calling her “stupid,” and German suspicions that a sudden announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals from Germany was instigated by Merkel’s decision not to travel to Washington for a G-7 meeting have raised serious questions about American dependability. A 70-year-old alliance based on shared values and interests, possessing deep interoperability, appears to be in jeopardy.
President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that multilateral diplomacy will be far more important in his administration’s strategic calculations than it has been under Trump. Whether it is working with NATO, the European Union, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, effective multiparty diplomacy begins with sound and respectful bilateral relations with a European insider: multilateralism with a bilateral foundation. Reinforcing the U.S.-German relationship, speaking more from a position of equality rather than dominance, and putting the relationship on a sounder policy foundation for the future will have benefits for the entire transatlantic community.
The initial German reaction to Biden’s election has been positive. However, the new Biden administration should avoid the pitfalls of a “nostalgia-based policy” that attempts to turn back the clock to the Obama administration. Like the United States, Germany will have a new leader in the coming year. Papering over differences through personal diplomacy may not be enough. Now is a time to relaunch the relationship based on new as well as old areas of shared interest. Biden should “think bigger and broader” by prioritizing new investments in this critical relationship beyond NATO diplomacy, to include soft-power strategic issues. This approach could restore trust between German and American leaders while increasing the utility of the relationship to both capitals. This article proposes four areas where the two governments have the potential for such cooperation.
Transatlantic Security Policy
Russia will remain a central challenge for both governments. As in the 2016 U.S. elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been recklessly aggressive in using hybrid warfare techniques, including cyber warfare against the German parliament. German federal prosecutors have also accused Russian authorities in the 2019 assassination of a Chechen man with Georgian citizenship in Berlin. In recent years, Germany has led Europe in responding to Russian aggression. Although Germany has substantially more investments in Russia than the United States does, Berlin has supported and helped shape the sanctions imposed by the United States following Moscow’s incursions into eastern Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea. In 2020, Germany provided safe treatment for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny following his poisoning and called for E.U. sanctions on the Belarusian leader for the violent treatment of protestors in the wake of fraudulent elections. Given Germany’s economic and political strength, there can be no effective Western policy toward Russia without close cooperation between Berlin and Washington.
One of the top priorities of the Biden administration will be the revitalization of the transatlantic alliance. The United States and Germany should form a joint working group on Russia policy based in both the National Security Council and the Chancellor’s Office to develop a coordinated strategy for dealing with Putin. This process should be separate from NATO consultations. NATO now has 30 members. Given its size and divisions, it would be advantageous for Washington to find agreement with Berlin prior to seeking support from other allies. As the German foreign minister recently suggested, the German government perceives a need for coordination on sanctions policies, and this should be a key element in a new transatlantic strategy.
The Trump administration did not consult with Berlin prior to announcing its decision to withdraw more than a quarter of the U.S. troop presence in Germany. Both governments should reconsider this decision and the long-term U.S. military profile in Germany as part of the discussions of the proposed joint working group. American bases in Germany have been as much about deployments to Southwest Asia and the Middle East as about defending Germany. Because the American withdrawal from the Middle East is likely to continue under the Biden administration, their role is now about the credibility of the U.S. guarantee of European security — which needs to be reinforced after Trump’s weakening of NATO’s Article 5 reassurances.
Trade and China Policy
Washington and Berlin face similar problems in dealing with an increasingly assertive and authoritarian regime in Beijing. Unlike the Trump approach, Biden’s will understand that without a unified West, China will divide and conquer. Here, too, Germany remains the key player in Europe given that it has the strongest economic relationship with China of any E.U. member state. However, German elites are increasingly skeptical that fair trade with China is possible. In September, wary of Chinese state influence, the German government moved to block telecom giant Huawei from the country’s 5G program.
The dormant Obama-era Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership failed to generate enthusiasm in Germany and was dropped by Trump. The Biden administration should explore the possibility of “a newly consolidated Western trade alliance” with the United States to counter China’s “aggressively controlled state capitalism,” as the German defense minister recently argued. This may be the best way to meet shared challenges with China such as defending intellectual property rights, preventing the takeover of key companies, and creating a level playing field in trade and investment — in short, ensuring that the terms of trade are fair. As a first step, the new U.S. team should suspend the Trump tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports, which have been damaging to both the transatlantic relationship and American companies.
The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be dealt with unilaterally. Pandemics are not national emergencies — they require international cooperation. Germany has world-class biomedical capabilities and facilities and will be an indispensable partner in containing and ending the pandemic. It was Germany that developed the first successful test for COVID-19 that was deployed globally. Germany has been credited with utilizing technology more effectively than other Western democracies to track and manage the pandemic. Yet in early 2020, the German government revealed that the Trump administration had attempted to purchase a German firm making progress on a COVID-19 vaccine, possibly to secure exclusive rights for Americans. In response, in May 2020, Germany passed legislation to protect its vaccine manufacturers from similar poaching and compelled the government to acquire a stake in the same company that the United States had allegedly targeted.
The United States should repair the relationship by looking for cooperative opportunities to not only address the current pandemic but also prevent future ones. The German government was displeased by the announced U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization and will be glad to see a U.S. president reaffirm the U.S. commitment to multilateral cooperation on public health. At the same time, cooperation at the bilateral level would help address deficiencies in both countries’ pandemic responses. As in the United States, many Germans have resented and resisted government-led efforts to address the pandemic, but the German government has more successfully limited the number of cases and deaths. There are lessons that Americans could draw from Germany’s experience if they could be effectively disseminated to the public.
Climate and Energy
Germany has also made progress on another new dimension of foreign policy: environmental security. The Energiewende (energy transition) initiative increased renewable-sourced (wind, solar, hydroelectric) electricity generation, which will decrease carbon emissions. There are critics of the Energiewende, and its success has been masked by other factors, including the simultaneous elimination of nuclear power generation. Still, renewables accounted for 40 percent of German power generation in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The United States is struggling with unprecedented severe weather, water insecurity, and wildfires, and gets only 17 percent of its production from renewables. Germans appreciate the importance of the United States for addressing global climate change, and there is potential for a broad discussion of energy and environmental security to mutual benefit. Such a project would require diplomacy beyond the diplomats. The secretaries of the Departments of Energy and Commerce, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and other senior figures could take part in regular cabinet-level meetings — reflecting the complex, interdepartmental nature of this challenge.
There is also an unprecedented urgency — and opportunity — to bring societies into decisions that deeply affect people in their locales. The Biden administration should find creative ways to incorporate state governments in both countries in joint efforts to promote environmental security. For example, cooperation between California and Baden-Wurttemberg on lowering emissions through the United Nations’ Under 2 MOU Coalition represents a creative way to think about partnership. The administration should convene a high-level joint commission, which could be reinforced by vertical cooperation from civil society and partnerships between American and German cities and states, and should also cultivate interest in the project within Congress and the German Bundestag.
A major source of irritation with Germany in Washington has been Berlin’s cooperation with Moscow on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. In 2020, the U.S. Congress has deliberated expanding sanctions to discourage completion of this project, which Congress fears will undermine Ukraine and increase Russian influence. Strategic thinkers in both countries have long shared concerns that Germany is too dependent on Russian energy supplies, and this has been a source of rancor in relations with Berlin. Biden’s longtime national security adviser Antony Blinken even wrote a 1987 book on the subject. Nevertheless, the Biden team should keep its focus on the big picture and realize that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will be a fait accompli when Biden is sworn in and should not inhibit broader cooperation with Berlin. The Biden administration should instead use increased bilateral dialogue to push Germany’s government beyond Nord Stream 2, to diversify the country’s natural gas supply to include greater consumption of liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere. The German government should also be thinking of offering compromises to the United States on this thorny issue.
The common thread in these recommendations is that the Biden administration should invest attention in the U.S.-German relationship, think big and broad, and take a less unilateral approach, one that emphasizes engagement across multiple levels of government and society. The Biden team can’t necessarily undo the perception the Trump years created in that the United States had withdrawn from the world. There may not be as large a shift in German attitudes as Obama’s presidency generated. Germany’s post-World War II aversion to flexing its hard power is understandable but sometimes makes it a problematic partner. From an American perspective, one good outcome of the perception that the United States cannot be relied on may be that Germany, which has committed to greater defense spending, will cooperate with its European partners to take greater responsibility for their collective security. Security cooperation with Berlin should be defined in the broadest possible terms to incorporate trade, health, and climate, as well as hybrid military threats.
Today’s Germany has taken on a leadership role at the center of Europe that would have been unimaginable when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In the wake of Brexit, Germany has become an even more central player in shaping E.U. policies. Brexit is likely to see a further diminution of the United Kingdom’s economic and military power. For the foreseeable future, London will be focused on its internal problems, including the territorial integrity of the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Biden team and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have already warned U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson about preserving the Good Friday agreements as part of its withdrawal from E.U. membership. Regrettably, Britain’s ability to assist the United States in bridge-building within Europe was dramatically curbed by Brexit.
Germany’s importance to the United States as a European partner, given the growing importance of the European Union to American diplomacy and economic statecraft, becomes more significant post-Brexit. While France remains the most important military power in the European Union — the only one with an independent nuclear force — it remains ambivalent about NATO and prizes its strategic independence from the United States. The Franco-German tandem remains central to any leadership in the European Union, but France is not in the same league as Germany in economics. In the future, the United States is almost certain to maintain strong ties with Britain and France, but Germany is key. A strong bilateral relationship between Washington and Berlin should not be mistaken for a strong partnership with the European Union. Berlin is a partner in Brussels, a first call when navigating the political shoals of Europe.
Biden can and should deepen ties with this anchor state in areas where the United States can benefit from its experience, and should generate a more robust symbiotic relationship that is relevant to the new generations in both countries. While German public confidence in the United States has plummeted, the American public remains positive about Germany. There is also bipartisan support for the transatlantic relationship in Congress. Trump was an outlier in the Republican Party on Europe, especially on Germany. The United States can and should be judged by the allies it makes and keeps on the world stage. It should endeavor to rebuild ties to Germany, a partner worth having.
Stephen F. Szabo is a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and an adjunct professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including the books The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia, and the Rise of Geo-Economics.
Dr. Jason Bruder is a former State Department official and senior staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he covered Europe for Chairmen Joseph R. Biden, John Kerry, and Bob Menendez. Bruder holds a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom and is a research associate at its Institute for the Middle East, Central Asia, and Caucasus Studies.
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