Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest

Even the arrival of a pro-European U.S. administration can’t paper over unmistakable signs of trans-Atlantic trouble.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. DOMINIQUE JACOVIDES/AFP via Getty Images

After four years of former President Donald Trump’s relentless animosity towards Europe, the inauguration of Joe Biden as his successor this week had all the makings of a veritable Hallmark movie of trans-Atlantic harmony. The relief on the other side of the Atlantic is palpable—and nowhere more than in Germany, which had consistently found itself the special object of Trump’s ire. In a recent poll by YouGov and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 73 percent of Germans approved of Biden compared to only 62 percent in France and 50 percent in the United States itself.

In Berlin, Biden’s election was immediately greeted with exuberant speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer—all offering variants of a trans-Atlantic New Deal. Cohorts of German and American policy experts have hammered out reports with detailed recommendations on how to revive the U.S.-European relationship. (Full disclosure: I participated in two such efforts, to be found here and here.)

And the stars have continued to align for Europe in Washington. Incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, paid homage to the United States’ “core alliances” and pledged leadership in “humility,” adding that “not one of the challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone.” That’s music to European ears—and not just in Berlin. The Biden administration’s rapidly filling foreign and security policy bench features a team of knowledgeable, experienced, and dedicated Europeanists.

Yet there are unmistakable signs of trans-Atlantic trouble on the horizon that even the arrival of a pro-European U.S. administration can’t paper over. And that trouble is coming from Germany. Three separate controversies that have unfolded since Biden was elected president illustrate how much Europe’s biggest economy struggles to reconcile its deeply ingrained instinct to seek equally good relations with friends and foes alike with the uncomfortable fact that a darkened strategic landscape may force Germany to align more strongly with the West—and pay a price for doing so.

First, Germany was the main driving force behind a controversial deal between the European Union and China that will likely be a central and lasting source of U.S.-European disagreement. Just before the end of 2020, the EU, under the German rotating presidency and led by Merkel herself, signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, causing an uproar on both sides of the Atlantic.
All three cases could be read as variations of a single motif: Germany’s geoeconomic nationalism and its search for equidistance between West and East.

Second, the election of Armin Laschet as Merkel’s successor to lead the Christian Democratic Party, making him the presumptive candidate for chancellor in Germany’s September election, signals another source of trans-Atlantic division. Laschet, currently the governor of the rust-belt state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is being scrutinized for his past deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

A third controversy further underlines the power of Russia over German politics, and its ability to drive a wedge between Germany, its EU partners, and the United States. Manuela Schwesig, the Social Democratic governor of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is a tireless promoter of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Germany via her state. She is under fire for announcing the creation of a so-called environmental foundation funded with €20 million by the pipeline’s Russian owner, Gazprom. A spokesperson for Schwesig openly said that the foundation was designed as a front to circumvent U.S. sanctions on companies involved in the project.

It is tempting to read all three cases as variations of a single, familiar motif: Germany’s geoeconomic nationalism and its search for equidistance between the West, led by the United States, and the East, which today means Russia and China. It’s a criticism that has long been leveled at Germany by scholars such as Hans Kundnani. The truth, however, is both more pedestrian and more complicated.

The time when Putin and his government had any credit in Berlin are long gone, thanks to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, an ongoing proxy war in eastern Ukraine, the 2015 computer hack of the German parliament, the 2020 murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin, and the recent assassination attempt on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Behind closed doors, German politicians and business leaders alike wearily admit that Nord Stream 2’s political costs far outweigh any economic benefits. But Germany is a robustly federal country: Schwesig governs a poor state and is desperate for any investment at all, and central authority under Merkel is waning ahead of the national elections. U.S. sanctions pressure—not to mention the angry letter from the three U.S. Senators threatening the mayor of the small Baltic seaport hosting the pipeline’s German terminus—has Germans, including the project’s domestic critics, circling the wagons.

Laschet, as Germany’s potential next chancellor, may be a more serious reason for trans-Atlantic concern. He is often described as a male version of Merkel, but this is inaccurate. Merkel, for all her caution and apparent blandness, has radically reshaped German politics. Laschet, by contrast, is a throwback to the politics of pre-unification West Germany, which were dominated by the same regional, mainly Catholic male power networks from which Laschet emerged. His apparent conviction that Germany can be passionately European and trans-Atlanticist while simultaneously forging close relationships with Russia and China is a continuation of the old West German desire to balance West and East—the Cold-War policies of Westbindung and Ostpolitik. Inexplicably, Laschet appears to see no need to update his foreign-policy talking points to account for the worsening of Europe’s strategic environment—where such a balancing act is increasingly questioned by Germany’s partners—or his own rise to national significance.

Perceptions of China under President Xi Jinping have also sharpened in Berlin of late, mainly in response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and exploitative global posture, including in Europe. Yet while the EU’s new investment agreement with China is being hailed as a strategic victory in Beijing, diplomats in Brussels and Berlin defend the CAI as a breakthrough in getting China to sign on to more transparency and international labor standards, despite the country’s poor track record in living up to such commitments. The Europeans point to similar deals with China made by the Trump administration and a group of Asian governments, and say they are just leveling the playing field for European companies to access China’s huge consumer market. But Merkel also needed a win for Germany’s heavily export-dependent, pandemic-stricken auto industry. While she secured backing for the deal from French President Emmanuel Macron, several other European governments are reportedly worried and critical. Loud criticism also came from the European Parliament, which must approve the agreement.
It is not too late to envision a far more robust and genuinely strategic European policy towards Russia and China.

The common thread among these three episodes is neither cynical geoeconomic nationalism nor strategic naiveté, but, alas, short-sightedness against better knowledge. To pretend that Europe and the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other can somehow be treated as equivalents and held in balance, or that projects such as Nord Stream 2 and deals such as the CAI are economic and reciprocal in nature—while they are in reality political, strategic, and designed by Moscow and Beijing to weaponize interdependence—all this undercuts European unity and trans-Atlantic cohesion, alienating Germany’s partners and allies. Ultimately, these are own goals—acts that are not even in Germany’s self-interest. Germany’s leaders know this, yet proceed anyway.

Still, it is not too late to envision a far more robust and genuinely strategic European policy towards Russia and China, and one in which Germany as the Europe’s anchor economy would play a key role. The current barrage of criticism might even prompt Germany to do so. Such a policy would by no means exclude cooperation with Russia and China on transnational issues like pandemics or climate change. It would accept interdependence as a geographic, economic, and technological reality. Yet it would situate global governance cooperation and economic engagement firmly in a context of systemic rivalry, insist on reciprocity and clear red lines, and have the will to use Europe’s substantial economic and political leverage much more forcefully. (Recent papers on Indo-Pacific strategy published by several EU nations, including Germany, are a good start.) And such a policy would recognize that Russian support of dictators in Belarus and Syria, and that Chinese coercion of democratic neighbors such as South Korea and Taiwan affect Europe’s values and security. And finally, it would put an end to fanciful talk of European autonomy vis-a-vis either Russia or China—a favorite talking point not just in Berlin, but Paris as well.

This is where the Biden administration comes in. Europeans need the backup of U.S. power against Russian and Chinese bullying—and the assumption of having that backup was badly shaken over the past four years. The United States, in turn, needs the diplomatic, economic, and regulatory heft of the EU. But the Biden team—while probably the most EU-friendly in decades—is divided between optimists and pessimists when it comes to the possibility of cooperation with Europe, especially on their single most important concern, China. My colleague and Brookings scholar Thomas Wright thinks the CAI may already have tipped the balance towards the pessimists. At the very least, both Nord Stream 2 and the CAI place the burden of proof on Brussels, and above all Berlin, to prove that they are serious about a more strategic and comprehensive approach towards the authoritarian powers challenging the West and the global order.

But are German policymakers ready and willing to engage their U.S. counterparts in these conversations? It was once said of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It would be regrettable if Germany, too, missed its chance in Washington—particularly since the window of opportunity may be short. But Germany’s leaders should consider that a more proactive and strategic posture might gain them greater leverage not just with their rivals, but also with their friends.

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a senior fellow and the Fritz Stern chair on Germany and transatlantic relations at Brookings. Twitter: @ConStelz