Germany should be a leader in countering the destabilization efforts of China and Russia. Yet the new German government could end up being the weak link in the transatlantic community. And, unfortunately, President Biden thus far looks more like an enabler for the downfall of dependable German leadership.
The U.S. needs to be more than “back.” Not everything can be resolved in quick trips to Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. Washington must double down on strengthening bilateral relationships across Europe that can preserve a strong Atlantic community.
Paris, as it is wont to do, has lately resumed its push for European “strategic autonomy,” particularly for defense and foreign policy. But outside of Brussels, there is really little appetite for the French vision. What European solidarity truly needs is stronger leadership from Berlin. Yet Germany seems averse to taking strong pro-European stands against the dangers posed by Moscow and Beijing.
Berlin’s attitude toward China could be particularly problematic. Germany’s recent elections sparked no real debate regarding the relationship with China. Political parties and German business interests have downplayed a debate on external politics. Although the Greens promise to radically reform the nation’s China policy, the chances that their leader Annalena Baerbock could become chancellor are nil. At the same time, the two first ranked parties, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) do not seem to offer major changes on the foreign policy front.
On Putin, the prospects for a more assertive German stance are only slightly better. The Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are not Putin fans. They have criticized the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for both geopolitical and environmental reasons. The future of the project is a subject of negotiating in the construction of the governing coalition.
One thing is certain: if Baerbock, the most vehement objector of Nord Stream 2, becomes minister of foreign affairs, energy negotiations between Russia and Germany will get far more complicated. As for FDP leader Christian Lindner, he stated during his campaign that he would condition approval of the pipeline on the existence of a democratic government in Moscow. Although neither of these two parties will lead the governing coalition, their leaders’ perspectives indicate that tougher energy policies toward Russia are possible.
Practically speaking, Germany’s new political road may lead to a greater emphasis on green energy and a reduction of dependence on Russian gas. This model could inspire all of Europe, especially since the Greens’ rhetoric toward nuclear energy has softened. Further, including the democrat-liberals in the government would significantly contribute to balancing some radical actions from the Greens’ and vice versa.
Defense, on the other hand, could be one of the most worrisome aspects of Germany’s next government. Berlin will almost certainly abandon any realistic commitment to spending two percent of GDP on defense and do little to improve readiness or modernization of the German armed forces.
Whether the next government is better or worse for U.S. policies will hinge on the final coalition’s power-sharing agreement and U.S. willingness to put in the effort needed to make the Germans see the light on China/Russia. The good news of the German election was that neither the far right nor far left will play a major role in German politics.
The largest priority in Germany now is to reach stability and forge a consensus amidst the diverging views of the major parties. From this point of view, the defining characteristic of the new coalition government will be ambivalence at best.
At some juncture, however, Germany will find that, to protect its own national interests, it will have to take a stronger stand on Chinese influence in Europe. Further, if the new government wants to be a credible leader, Berlin must be committed to supporting the Eastern European nations trying to join the EU and escape Russia’s malignant influence. In addition, the new ruling coalition in Germany has a moral duty to stop Russia from blackmailing the EU politically via threats to withhold energy.
America ought to push the new government to stand strong and support other nations by strengthening bilateral relations as well. If the Biden team wants to remain relevant to the transatlantic community, it will have to do more than talk up climate change and cheerlead for the EU strategic autonomy.
The U.S. will have to support serious, impactful action like advancing the Three Seas Initiative, enhancing Black Sea security, filling the Western European strategic vision vacuum and investing in real defense capabilities for NATO. Actions like these would deliver better economic, environmental, and security outcomes for Europe and for the United States.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive