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June 30, 2021

The Stakes are High

Angela Merkel’s slow and deliberate approach to issues important to Washington has impeded a transatlantic kick-start. The Biden administration hopes her successor will give the relationship new momentum.

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US President Joe Biden with Angela Merkel at the G7 meeting
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As German Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to step down after almost 16 years in office, transatlantic relations, and especially US-Germany relations, remain uncertain. The administration of US President Joe Biden has made several overtures to Europe and to Merkel specifically in an effort to get relations back on track. In addition to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and the UN Human Rights Council, the Biden administration has re-started talks to bring Iran back into compliance with the international nuclear agreement, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. (Iran began to exceed the limits to uranium enrichment imposed by the deal after former President Donald Trump ordered the US withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018). To woo Merkel, President Biden reversed Trump’s decision to partially withdraw US troops from Germany and waived sanctions on some European companies involved with the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2—a step that drew significant criticism from the US Congress and other domestic constituencies.

The Biden administration never expected that such steps would quickly repair relations after four years of Trump, but progress in revitalizing the relationship has proven more difficult than anticipated. The series of summits with NATO and the European Union were seen as a success on both sides of the Atlantic and were a step in the right direction. The message was clear: America is back and committed to its allies. Yet, questions remain about what tangible progress will come of the summits and where US-Europe relations will go from here. Underneath the veneer of goodwill remain persistent European concerns about the reliability of the United States as a partner, threatening to weaken transatlantic cooperation.  

Jumpstarting US-Germany Relations?

Against this backdrop, many in the United States are expressing quiet optimism that Merkel’s departure might jumpstart momentum in the transatlantic relationship. Of course, there is broad recognition of the critical role that Merkel has played in Europe, helping to navigate the global economic and refugee crises, and serving as an anchor among liberal democracies during the turbulence of the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet Merkel’s slow and deliberative approach to sensitive issues has also impeded quick transatlantic progress on issues America cares about, especially on China and strengthening European defense.

As the US looks to a post-Merkel Europe, there is a long list of issues Washington wants to pursue, including addressing a rising China, Russian aggression, combating climate change, cyber defense, technology policy, and global pandemic response. The US wish list for a post-Merkel Europe, in other words, is largely the same as it was with Merkel at the helm. The key difference is that US hopes for progress run higher in those areas where progress has been slowest and that have been most contentious within Europe, especially on China, Russia, and defense.

Overall, Washington will continue to look to Europe as its most critical partner in the fight to shore up democracy. Although Merkel quietly worked to bridge many European divides, her preference for stability came with downsides. Merkel did little, for example, to address the slide away from democracy in Hungary and Poland. Similarly, her pragmatism and prioritization of German business interests created a permissive environment for Russian and Chinese malign influence in Germany and Europe more broadly. President Biden has elevated democracy and human rights within US foreign policy, an approach supported by many Americans and a welcome correction after four years of the Trump administration. The United States, therefore, will look to a post-Merkel Europe to take a stronger position on democracy and human rights, especially as it pertains to China.

A Unified Approach to Beijing

To that end, US hopes for a post-Merkel Europe run highest when it comes to charting a tougher and more unified approach to Beijing. Merkel’s prioritization of German economic interests slowed the convergence of European views on the nature of the China challenge. Even as Beijing grew more aggressive, Merkel maintained her push for the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China. Most recently in the wake of the NATO summit, many took Merkel’s post-summit comments as weakening the allies’ agreement to elevate China among NATO’s priorities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told allies the US would not make them pick sides between the US and China; however, there is hope that a post-Merkel Europe will be more explicit about where it stands in the competition with an increasingly antagonistic Beijing. 

Washington could help its case with Europe on China. The Biden administration is correct in viewing the competition with China as one between democracy and authoritarianism. But framing the competition in such ideological terms risks alienating the support of some Europeans. Instead, as Washington looks to a post-Merkel Europe, it should pursue a more pragmatic approach, working through mechanisms like the US-EU China council. The US administration will almost certainly look to Europe for progress on countering China’s predatory trade policies, advancing US and European technology leadership, reclaiming the agenda in multilateral organizations, protecting human rights, and sustaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Greater Consensus on Russia

Not only will the United States look for more coordinated and complementary policies on China, but Washington also hopes that a post-Merkel Europe will produce a stronger line on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. While Merkel played a key role in maintaining EU sanctions on Russia in the wake of Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, she has not been uniformly tough on Moscow. Her backing of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and her strong preference for dialogue—often with little coordination with Central and Eastern Europeans, as the failed Merkel-Macron proposal for an EU-Putin summit just underscored—have proven unsuccessful in deterring Putin’s increasingly brazen and confrontational tactics.

There was hope in Washington that the Kremlin’s failed assassination of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, its military build-up around Ukraine’s border, and its defense of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko after he forced down a plane to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich would catalyze greater European consensus around a stronger approach to Russia. Yet no such consensus has emerged. Looking to a post-Merkel Europe, the Biden administration hopes for a more active partner in confronting Russia, including through stepped-up efforts to fight corruption, counter the Kremlin’s malign cyber tactics, and supporting Russian civil society amid growing Russian repression.

Perhaps most critically, the United States hopes that a post-Merkel Europe will do more to provide for its own security and defense. For too long, Germany’s begrudging and small increases in military spending have undercut the security of Europe and NATO. For Washington, a more militarily capable Europe is essential not just for deterring Putin’s Russia, but also for allowing the US to do more to focus on China. Washington will look to the next German chancellor to advocate, both domestically and in Europe, for Europe to take some of the burden of military leadership off the United States. The Biden administration is ready to discuss a broader definition of what defense capabilities will count toward meeting allied pledges to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, but the importance of burden-sharing will remain.

Getting Past Hope

The Biden administration’s approach to Europe reflects a recognition of the critical role Germany plays in forging European action and therefore Washington’s ability to execute on many of its foreign policy priorities. The decision not to sanction German companies involved in Nord Stream 2 reflects President Biden’s judgment that the United States will be more effective working alongside Germany. The importance that Washington assigns to Berlin in many ways breeds the prevailing optimism about the post-Merkel era. It is too tempting to imagine that leadership change will catalyze progress.

Yet while Washington may be hopeful about the prospects for cooperation with Europe, there remains a distinct possibility that today’s optimism will fail to translate into reality. Numerous factors, most of all the outcome of Germany’s election, will significantly shape the contours of the post-Merkel transatlantic relationship. Other factors, ranging from France’s election next year, the impact that a violent collapse in Afghanistan (if it were to occur) could have on Europe’s appetite to listen to Washington, and the generational and paradigmatic shift that the rise of Germany’s Green party signals, will also shape that future.

Although the future is uncertain, the stakes are high. Now is the time, with one of the most transatlantic US presidents of our time, to lock in progress and demonstrate the benefits of the transatlantic alliance to publics on both sides of the Atlantic. If the transatlantic partners can’t make progress now, it raises the risk of further divergence in the future. As we enter the post-Merkel era, it is time for the United States and Europe together to show that democracies can deliver and offer a positive vision and agenda for the future.

Andrea Kandell-Taylor is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Carisa Nietsche is an associate fellow at CNAS’ Transatlantic Security Program.

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