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Biden’s Surrender to Merkel on Nord Stream 2

His support for the pipeline abandoned a bipartisan consensus, got nothing in return, and made the world less secure.

By , a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, and , a professor at Stanford University and a former senior advisor on the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.
Merkel and Biden at the White House
U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 15. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Bipartisan opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a cornerstone of the foreign policies of both the Obama and Trump administrations, an unambiguous response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s record of using gas deliveries as a weapon of coercion in Eastern Europe. The recent decision by the Biden administration to reverse the policy of its predecessors and to refrain from sanctioning participants in the pipeline project is nothing but a capitulation to pressure from Germany and a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The damage to American national interest will be profound.

If the administration’s goal was to rebuild trans-Atlantic ties, its embrace of Nord Stream 2 is a clear misfire. Even in Germany, opposition to the pipeline has been growing. The German Green party, which is likely to emerge from the upcoming election as part of the governing coalition, opposes Nord Stream 2. The Green candidate for the chancellorship, Annalena Baerbock, has denounced it as a wedge that divides Europe and a failure for both ecological and geostrategic reasons. The Biden administration has just squandered an opportunity to find common ground with a likely next leader of Germany in order to accommodate Chancellor Angela Merkel during her final months in office.

The decision on the pipeline is having repercussions in the band of countries on or near the eastern flank of the European Union. From Poland’s vantage point, the Nord Stream 2 project has always awakened unpleasant memories of agreements between Berlin and Moscow, bypassing Warsaw. Former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski likened the pipeline to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly divided up his country between Germany and the Soviet Union, setting the stage for World War II. A recent joint statement from Poland and Ukraine points to the disturbing implications of the pipeline decision having been taken without consultations with the countries affected most directly.

Bipartisan opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a cornerstone of the foreign policies of both the Obama and Trump administrations, an unambiguous response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s record of using gas deliveries as a weapon of coercion in Eastern Europe. The recent decision by the Biden administration to reverse the policy of its predecessors and to refrain from sanctioning participants in the pipeline project is nothing but a capitulation to pressure from Germany and a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The damage to American national interest will be profound.

If the administration’s goal was to rebuild trans-Atlantic ties, its embrace of Nord Stream 2 is a clear misfire. Even in Germany, opposition to the pipeline has been growing. The German Green party, which is likely to emerge from the upcoming election as part of the governing coalition, opposes Nord Stream 2. The Green candidate for the chancellorship, Annalena Baerbock, has denounced it as a wedge that divides Europe and a failure for both ecological and geostrategic reasons. The Biden administration has just squandered an opportunity to find common ground with a likely next leader of Germany in order to accommodate Chancellor Angela Merkel during her final months in office.

The decision on the pipeline is having repercussions in the band of countries on or near the eastern flank of the European Union. From Poland’s vantage point, the Nord Stream 2 project has always awakened unpleasant memories of agreements between Berlin and Moscow, bypassing Warsaw. Former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski likened the pipeline to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly divided up his country between Germany and the Soviet Union, setting the stage for World War II. A recent joint statement from Poland and Ukraine points to the disturbing implications of the pipeline decision having been taken without consultations with the countries affected most directly.

Central and Eastern Europeans are drawing the inescapable conclusion that the Biden administration is prepared to make concessions at the cost of their security. Of course, Western-oriented politicians on the eastern flank of NATO have nowhere else to turn but to Washington—but there is also an anti-Western, pro-Russian opposition in all these countries that will now be emboldened to point out how Washington’s security promises cannot be trusted. The result will be a softening of the post-Cold War, pro-United States sentiment in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

More dangerously, the lesson for Moscow and Beijing is that sanctions for international aggression will never be sustained for very long.

The willingness of the administration to make decisions of this magnitude without consulting the countries most exposed will not be lost on other parts of the world. Jerusalem and Riyadh, for example, are no doubt already strategizing around the potential of facing a surprise similar to the one that Washington just delivered to Warsaw and Kyiv. The promise that U.S. diplomats will keep them fully apprised of developments in the Vienna negotiations with Iran suddenly seems much less credible. Uncertainty about Washington’s motivations and actions increases prospects for regional instability through direct military action by the opponents of Iran’s nuclear potential. Then there is the urgent matter of the protesters in Cuba. What role, if any, will the Biden administration play in supporting their demands for political and economic freedom and holding the Havana regime to account for its widespread repression?

The joint U.S.-German statement on support for Ukraine, a weak effort to justify the pipeline surrender, offers only vague promises with no binding force. Ukraine remembers how the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which was supposed to guarantee its independence and integrity in return for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear arms, could not protect it when Russia moved into Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, nor did it motivate the United States to provide effective support. There is scant reason for Kyiv to expect more from the Biden administration.

Nor do German promises to support Ukraine have much credibility. These are promises from the country that prides itself on breaking the promise it made in the Wales Pledge to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on its own and NATO’s defense. Nor did Berlin ever act robustly in the face of a Moscow-sponsored assassination that took place in a Berlin park just a stone’s throw from the Bundestag or in response to the mistreatment of Russian political opponents, most notably Alexei Navalny. No matter how egregious Russian assaults on the international order become, there will always be a pro-Moscow lobby in Germany, the notorious Putinversteher—or “Putin understanders”—who argue for appeasement and accommodation. Kyiv and others in Central and Eastern Europe know that Berlin will always face strong domestic pressure to refrain from acting against Russian aggression. They should not count on the Bundeswehr to defend them.

If, however, the point of Biden’s gift to Merkel was only to heal U.S.-German bilateral relations, then one should ask what the German chancellor gave in return. Apparently not much: The Nord Stream 2 decision has not elicited, for example, an announcement that Germany will meet its NATO defense spending commitments. Nor has Germany adopted a tough stance on China by eliminating the security threats inherent in the utilization of Huawei’s 5G telecommunications technology. Nor has it ended the asymmetry in automobile tariffs that disadvantage U.S. carmakers to the benefit of German imports.

Biden’s foreign policy has achieved none of these well-known American goals. Instead, the administration is walking away from the Nord Stream 2 sanctions having weakened U.S. credibility in Europe and beyond. The lesson learned by Germany is that it can pursue its own inclinations of doing business with dictators regardless of principles and with no consequences from Washington. More dangerously, the lesson for Moscow and Beijing is that sanctions for international aggression will never be sustained for very long. The Biden administration has made the fragile international order even less secure.

Kiron Skinner is a professor of international relations and politics at Carnegie Mellon University, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department during the Trump administration. Twitter: @KironSkinner

Russell A. Berman is a professor in the humanities at Stanford University, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a former senior advisor on the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff during the Trump administration. Twitter: @RussellBermanSF

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