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Angela Merkel’s White House Visit Ends Trump-Era Hostilities, but Trans-Atlantic Drift Continues

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BERLIN—German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s farewell visit to Washington this week will broadcast a new, friendlier tone between the U.S. and Europe after the acrimony of the Trump era but will likely do little to reverse the long-term divergence of interests in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

The Thursday meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House will be the chancellor’s last official visit. Ms. Merkel isn’t running again at the September election after 16 years in office, a period spanning the terms of four U.S. presidents, starting with George W. Bush, that has seen a loosening of the bond between the U.S. and Europe and America’s increasing focus on Asia.

The drift turned to discord under President Donald Trump, who repeatedly singled out Germany in his complaints that Europe didn’t pay its way in the trans-Atlantic security arrangement, with leaders on both sides making little effort to conceal their mutual contempt.

In 2017, Ms. Merkel said Europe should no longer rely on others for protection and had to take its fate into its own hands, a comment aides said wasn’t just a dig at Mr. Trump’s administration but a call for more European independence amid increasing superpower competition between America and China.

“The tone is normal again, as is the ability to discuss all relevant issues like partners, but in terms of substance it is quite clear that America will not change some key policies,” a senior German official said. “Trump’s positions on a number of issues were American positions, only he pursued them in an aggressive way.”

A U.S. diplomat in Berlin echoed the sentiment, saying persistent challenges remain in the relationship.

Ms. Merkel with President Biden at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, U.K., in June.

Photo: guido bergmann/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

German officials say the White House meeting, to be followed by a dinner hosted by Mr. and Dr. Biden for the chancellor and her husband Joachim Sauer, will signal progress on issues that have turned into flashpoints during the previous administration.

Discussions will cover the countries’ different postures toward Russia—including the German-Russian submarine gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 that will double direct Russian gas exports to Germany—the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, relations with Iran, and U.S. attempts to forge a united Western position on China, German aides said.

Nord Stream 2 has been the biggest U.S.-German irritant in recent years. Successive U.S. governments have said the project would give Russian President Vladimir Putin excessive influence over Europe’s energy supply when it is completed in August, depriving some Eastern European nations from much-needed gas transit revenue, and allowing Russia to strategically cut off select nations from gas deliveries as political punishment.

During a press conference at the conclusion of the summit between leaders of the Group of Seven in mid-June, President Biden discussed working together with allies, global vaccine donations and how the group plans to approach challenges posed by China. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters (Video from 6/13/21)

Opposition to the pipeline, which is majority-owned by the Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom and headed by a former east-German secret police officer, has been a rare issue of bipartisan agreement.

Germany argues the link will help secure its own energy supply and points out that Europe had always bought oil and gas from Russia, even at the height of the Cold War.

In a sign of good will, Mr. Biden waived the application of  U.S. sanctions against the project earlier this year. He also rolled back Mr. Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany—one of a raft of decisions that singled out Berlin under his term.

The German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been the biggest irritant in U.S.-German relations in recent years.

Photo: odd andersen/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A potential U.S.-German truce on Nord Stream 2 could include possible German aid to Eastern European allies such as Ukraine, according to two officials. Ukraine hosts pipelines channeling Russian gas exports to Western Europe and is concerned Moscow could turn the tap off once Nord Stream 2 becomes operational, cutting off badly needed revenue in the process.

There won’t be a concrete commitment from Germany to halt gas purchases from Russia in the event of any nefarious action from the Kremlin, however, an official familiar with the chancellor’s thinking said.

“This is a European issue that can only be handled in Europe,” the official said, pointing out that the U.S. also purchases oil from Russia.

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Germany and the U.S. are also far from seeing eye-to-eye on Mr. Biden’s overarching foreign policy initiative to contain China, said Julia Friedlander, a former U.S. National Security Council official now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

China has long eclipsed the U.S. as Germany’s largest trade partner and while it isn’t its largest export market, it remains among the most important for German companies. Unlike most of its Western allies—including the U.S.—that import more goods from China than they export there, Germany has an almost balanced trade relationship with China, underlining the symbiotic relationship between the two economies.

Ms. Merkel is fundamentally skeptical of the concept of decoupling from China in a globalized economy, and remains aware that Mr. Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping can at any time come to an agreement over the heads of European leaders, officials familiar with her thinking said. Europe, and Germany, must pursue its own China policy, they said.

More on the U.S.-Germany Relationship

Ms. Merkel’s cautious approach reflects in part German perceptions of the U.S., which have been slowly deteriorating since the second Iraq war. In a new poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, only 19% of respondents view the U.S. as an ally that shares their “values and interests.” A majority said they thought the U.S. political system was broken.

“Trump was not the cause but rather the symptom of a structural change in the U.S. relationship with Germany and Europe,” said Josef Braml, a German political analyst.

The Biden administration’s move to frame the dispute with China as a contrast between democracy and autocracy on issues such as human rights has allowed for better cooperation than Mr. Trump’s earlier attempts, which focused on China as an economic rival, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

Yet Berlin hasn’t yet reciprocated Mr. Biden’s early concessions such as lifting the Nord Stream 2 sanctions and reversing Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Germany, he said. This is partly because of the chancellery’s concerns that the current thaw in relations with Washington could be temporary and the U.S. could again elect a more disruptive government, he said.

“It would pay off to give something to the Biden administration, so they have something to show to the conservative critics who say it doesn’t pay to be soft on Europe,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said.

The White House may have to wait until a new chancellor takes over from Ms. Merkel before it sees more progress, including on a unified China policy, he said.

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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