April 29, 2021

Joe Biden's 100 Days of Solitude

How Germany is botching the transatlantic restart with the new US administration.

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US President Joe Biden
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When Emmanuel Macron promoted the rebirth of the European project in a speech at Sorbonne University in 2017, the French president was primarily addressing Germany in the hope of starting reform initiatives together. But Germany, and chiefly its chancellor, Angela Merkel, kept silent about the initiative until the initial spirit of optimism had dissipated. Germany thus snubbed its most important European ally and wasted a historic opportunity.

When US President Joe Biden proclaimed a reset of the transatlantic relationship upon assuming office in January 2021, he too was addressing Germany, with which he intended to renew the foundations of the alliance. However, Germany, despite having greeted Biden’s presidency and the announcement of a “New Deal” with an exuberant sigh of relief, has done nothing of the sort, not so far at least: no compromises, no gestures, no initiatives, no investments. No “New Deal” anywhere. For Biden, 100 days as president have thus far amounted to 100 days of solitude. It seems it might not be long before Germany will have snubbed its most important non-European ally and will have—once again—wasted a historic opportunity.  

Since taking office, Biden has been setting off internationalist fireworks: the United States has rejoined all kinds of institutions and treaties, including the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization. The US decision to join the global vaccination alliance, COVAX, was accompanied by an investment in the billions of dollars; and its reentry into the Paris Climate Agreement came with an ambitious American self-commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, Biden wants to save the Iran nuclear deal and has already extended the New START Treaty on nuclear arms control with Russia.

Some of his initiatives are aimed directly at Germany. Biden halted the troop withdrawal ordered by President Donald Trump and as a bonus, he symbolically announced an increase of troops in Germany.  Biden also wants to shift the focus of the sanctions against the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 from Germany to Russia—something that is viewed with skepticism by the US Congress. Furthermore, Biden recently had his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, publicly convey three messages, all of which were addressed to Berlin, yet received little attention there: Firstly, while spending 2 percent of the gross domestic product on defense, which has long been agreed on by NATO member states, may be important, it is not the only yardstick by which the US measures allyship; secondly, if defense efforts were to be justified on a purely “European” basis, the United States would not object; and finally, no one should have to choose between China and the United States. This is all music to Berlin’s ears.

German Passivity

So how has Germany responded to America’s advances? For the first time, Germany will be sending a frigate to sail through the South China Sea, a plan that was well-received in Washington. Notably, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had already been working on this for more than a year. As such, this ostentatious trip has nothing to do with Biden’s election. If one were to ask what the German federal government is doing that it wouldn’t have done had Biden not been elected, one would be met with silence. It seems as though Biden’s arms are wide open for a welcoming embrace while the German chancellor is simply standing there with her arms crossed in front of her chest staring at the ground.

Naturally, Germany’s passivity is causing irritation in Washington. In fact, it is weakening Germany’s friends in the new administration. Some Republicans have already started shooting down Biden’s teddy-bear tactics. They hold that cuddling up to Europeans, in particular Germans, conjures up feel-good images at summits yet lacks tangible results. “Transatlantic bonhomie” is not enough, writes Wess Mitchell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe who, under Trump, was a member of an administration that considered it productive to squeeze allies until they squeak.

Among the riddles of Berlin politics is why the federal government doesn’t invest in a transatlantic renewal that it itself promotes. It may well be that the French reading has supporters in Berlin, according to which the United States is irreversibly turning away from Europe and Biden is only an intermezzo, which is why one should not invest too heavily in him. Believe in this theory and your passivity will ensure that your prophecy will become self-fulfilling. And then there are those who assume that repairing the relationship is an American duty only because it was the US that damaged the relationship under Trump’s leadership. Apparently, these politicians have not heard of German failures and strategic meanders (read: 2 percent and Nord Stream 2). Finally, there are those who believe that Washington has only changed in style and tone under Biden, not on substance. One wonders what else a new administration could be expected to do in the span of its first 100 days to convince its allies of the seriousness of its efforts to repair the alliance. But maybe those who view Biden as a better-behaved Trump will tell the rest of us.

To end its passivity, Germany should embark on three-pronged action: create a symbol of togetherness with the United States, attempt a compromise for one of the major irritants in the relationship, and get a head start on a positive joint agenda. First and foremost, Biden deserves a German response to his grand opening gesture of open arms. Only one person can do that: The chancellor of the Federal Republic. Merkel would need to explain why the relationship with the US remains essential and what Germany will bring to the table in future. It will not suffice to list the contributions Germany has made in the past, as was the case during the recent virtual Munich Security Conference. Secondly, one of the bilateral disputes would have to be resolved, preferably Nord Stream 2. In order to do this, Germany will need to discover the art of creative diplomacy. Thirdly, the German-American future could take shape by way of a modern project such as a joint research initiative for a G6 mobile network or the establishment of a Transatlantic Clean Energy Bank to finance climate-neutral energy projects.

There is still time to respond to the American opening. But historic moments slip away, and time windows do eventually close.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff leads the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. Andrea Rotter heads the Foreign and Security Policy Division at the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The views expressed in this text are the authors’ own, not those of their respective institutions.

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