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Biden Looks For A European Anchor In Berlin – OpEd

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By Andrew Hammond*

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With US-German ties at a potentially historic pivot point, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz makes his first major official trip outside Europe on Monday to meet US President Joe Biden. 

While Germany has generally had strong ties with the US since 1945, there have been significant disagreements from time to time. One example was the 2003 Iraq war, which provoked a significant schism in the transatlantic alliance when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opposed US President George W. Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

However, it is in the past half decade that there has been the biggest flux in ties.  In part, this was because of the poor relationship between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump from 2017 to 2021.  

Beyond the frosty ties of those two, however, relations have been blighted by several issues, including a US-proposed global intellectual property rights waiver that Washington believes will deliver coronavirus vaccines to the developing world more quickly. Under Merkel, Germany was at the vanguard of international resistance to this plan, insisting that it would do little or nothing to boost vaccine supply. 

But the really big issue that has soured ties is the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline.  Across the Republic-Democrat partisan aisle, there is significant concern in Washington, including the Biden team, on this vexed topic, and pressure is now increasing on Berlin to put an end to the whole project — which has been completed but not activated. 

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The pipeline will double the capacity of the undersea natural gas route to Europe. Merkel pushed hard for this,to enhance Germany’s energy security as it completes the post-Fukushima disaster shutdown of its nuclear power plants next year, and phases out heavily polluting coal by 2038.  

However, senior US officials remain concerned, despite recent compromises with Berlin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last year: “The pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the US, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals… It has the potential to undermine the interests of Ukraine, Poland and a number of close partners and allies.” 

This underlines that the issue has done significant damage to US-German relations, and a key question now for Biden is whether Scholz might have an appreciably different policy from Merkel’s.  On the campaign trail last year, the new German chancellor said: “Anything that impinges on gas transit and Ukraine’s security has consequences for potential transit through the completed pipeline.”  His Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, the leader of the Greens, took an even tougher stance before entering office, which encouraged Washington. 

Also of note for Biden is that Baerbock and her Green Party also favor a more “human-rights centric” approach to Beijing. She has been critical of President Xi Jinping with China’s economy remaining under tight state control, its foreign policy becoming more assertive, and human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

This could bring change on the horizon as, under Merkel, Berlin was one of Beijing’s key allies in the West. Her “change through trade” strategy toward China has fewer supporters in Germany today. 

So Biden and Scholtz, who will chair the G7 in 2022, will try to find common ground on these agendas, and seek benefits from the wider upturn in ties since the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. This includes cooperation on a range of challenges, including ending the pandemic, addressing the threat of climate change, and promoting economic prosperity and international security. 

This will build on the agreement last year between the US and Europe to end the 17-year transatlantic aerospace trade war over government support for Airbus and Boeing.  Both sides said they would suspend retaliatory tariffs on billions of dollars in non-aviation goods, and ensure that future research and development funding would not favor their aviation industries. 

Biden has also dialled down in public on several longstanding irritants in the relationship, especially trade and defense spending, which Trump had emphasized. For instance, Trump called Germany “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus, with exports significantly greater than imports, and he castigated Germany’s failure to spend the NATO requirement of 2 percent of GDP on defense.   

These are important for Biden, too, but they are ultimately subservient to his broader strategic goal of reconsolidating the Western alliance, and promoting economic prosperity and international security in the post-pandemic world.   

Nord Stream differences aside, he will do all he can now to stabilize the relationship with Berlin. Since Brexit, the US president sees Germany and France as increasingly important anchor points in the transatlantic relationship at a time of geopolitical flux.  

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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