In what looks like her last international visit by the end of her 16 years at the helm, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in the United States on 15 July, to be the first European Prime Minister to visit the United States under President Joe Biden’s administration, in an attempt to take a positive step in the course of bilateral relations between both sides, and even across-Atlantic relations.
Merkel’s visit is an attempt to bridge the rift created by the previous administration, led by Donald Trump, who adopted the policy “America First”, criticizing European allies and Germany and their policy towards the United States, especially with regard to security, trade and defence, which has strained the relations to the point of clash sometimes, and imposed sanctions on the Russian-German pipeline Nord Stream-2, and threatening to implement customs duties on some of the German imports, and the looming withdrawal from the NATO, and pressure to to commit 2% of its GDP to the NATO budget, as well as its announcement to decrease the number of troops in Germany to 250,000, where about 34,500 US troops are stationed in four German states: 18,459 in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, 3036 in the state of Baden-Württemberg, 11,189 in the state of Bavaria and 2471 in the state of Hessen, with a total of about 50,000 including administrative civilian personnel.
Files in focus
Merkel started the visit by meeting US Vice President Kamala Harris at her US Naval Observatory residence before going to the White House for talks with President Biden. Merkel discussed the floods in her country and their consequences. In addition to expressing his condolences for the victims of the flood, Biden discussed:
- Nord Stream-2 pipeline: Both sides differed on the pipeline with sources saying the US administration estimated that it will not be able to persuade Germany to change its position, and it would be better to ask for a more strict German position with Moscow in other files. Both parties pledged to counter the Russian movements and to prevent Moscow from using energy as its geostrategic mechanism to serve its interests, by pressuring allies or Ukraine. Merkel explained that Nord Stream-2 is an additional project, and is certainly not one intended to replace transit across Ukraine.
- Relations with Russia: Both sides focused on Russian cyber-attacks, emphasizing the commitment to protecting allies, as Biden stated during the press conference with Merkel: “We stand together and will continue to stand together to defend our allies from NATO’s eastern flank against Russian aggression.”
- Covid-19: The fallout from the pandemic continues to cloud relations. Biden said that his administration is studying when the travel ban of Europeans to Washington would be reversed. Merkel, on the other hand, emphasized that the decision should be sustained.
- Vaccine patents: Many human rights organizations and democratic legislators asked Biden to work on convincing Germany to wave its Covid-19 vaccine patents, to expand its production, both parties discussed this point, yet it’s obvious they did not reach a solution; because Merkel opposes this waiver, deeming it ineffective.
- Relations with China: Both leaders discussed Beijing’s economic rise, but they are still different about dealing with China, as a result of their different perceptions of China, but they both agree on confronting Chinese violations that undermine the principles of democracy and human rights, and here pointed out Merkel about the importance of equal trade opportunities with China.
- America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan: Merkel stated that the German partnership there was good, but it wasn’t able to build the nation it wanted, but “for many years, we worked together in Afghanistan, and were able to some extent to contain terrorist threats”.
- African Coast: Merkel expressed her gratitude for American efforts to contain, control, and reverse the pace of terrorism there, which represents a major challenge to Germany, Europe, and African states.
The farewell visit carried a friendly message, embodied in Biden’s reference that he would “miss seeing her at international summits”, and also described her as a great friend, a personal friend, and a friend to the United States, and in return, Merkel said, “I appreciate friendship”.
It also carried an important symbolic message, that takes shape in the restoration of Merkel into the new administration, Washington’s political and social elite, after years of clash and disrespect of Merkel by the Trump administration, as well as her ensuring the revival of the relations again and easing the tension between them, and making sure they provide each other with messages of reassurance to reach a compatible space, where they can cooperate, and overcome differences, as shown in the discussion of several files of common interest, without taking any decisions that would have long-term implications, especially as Merkel approaches the end of her term.
The US-German relations have suffered consecutive pitfalls due to the lack of consensus between both parties on the management of certain files on the regional and international fronts, and a radical difference in their respective strategic cultures, as well as their efforts to preserve their interests, their national priorities sometimes outweighed their mutual interests, as well as the reflection of personal relations between the leaders of the two countries on relations.
Since Merkel ascended to power in 2005, American-German relations witnessed several changes. During President George W. Bush Jr’s time, the relations were fairly stable, after the clash between Bush and Chancellor Schroeder over the invasion of Iraq.
When “Barack Obama” came into office, the relations were moving at a steady pace, where Merkel described him as a ‘distinguished partner’. He also awarded her the “Presidential Medal of Freedom”, during her visit in 2011, but the relations were not tension-free. For example, Merkel was outraged by the news that her phone was monitored by the US National Security Agency in 2013. With the arrival of Donald Trump, the relations suffered many pitfalls, which negatively affected her path. But with Joe Biden coming into power, the relations are still in shape, and they’re even on a way that will allow both parties to cooperate without a public clash. Indeed, Biden has preempted by a number of mechanisms that have contributed to reducing the tension, most notably:
- “The return of America”: Biden tried to restore the United States’ place, which in his view, was damaged as a result of Trump’s policy on the level of political discourse based on multilateralism and unity as a means of meeting global challenges, and on actions, declared a return to the Paris Agreement, the World Health Organization, the extension of the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, the resumption of talks with Iran on the nuclear program, the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights, the emphasis on multilateral cooperation under the umbrella of international institutions, as a prelude to the return of confidence in the United States as a strategic ally and an international power with an effect on the course of international interactions.
- Strengthening military cooperation: Biden’s administration announced its desire to freeze the decision concerning reducing the number of United States troops in Germany, which was states by United States National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan on 4 February as was confirmed during Lloyd Austin, United States Secretary of Defense for Berlin, and his German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s visit on 13 April as well as an increase by 500 troops in the area of Wiesbaden, to strengthen military cooperation between them and European deterrence and defense, and a commitment by Washington to Germany and its NATO allies.
As far as defense spending is concerned, the new administration has not withdrawn its decision that Germany should commit to increasing its military spending to 2% of its GDP in the NATO budget, but until now has not pressured Berlin or adopted a sharp tone with them, as Trump used to do. From its side, Berlin says that its defense budget is the largest in Europe and that the priority should be to raise the efficiency of its already deteriorating forces and to strengthen its capacity to work together with its allies.
- Germany, the best partner: United States Secretary of State Anthony Plinken, during a press conference with Merkel during his visit to Germany, which was his first European tour of France and Italy, on June 23, 2021, stated that he “believes it is fair to say that the United States has no better partner and friend than Germany in the world.”
He also met his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and they discussed some issues of common interest, such as the position on Nord Stream-2, explaining his country’s position on the draft, which raises a number of concerns for Washington about Russia:” Germany and the United States will continue to stand together against any dangerous or provocative activities by Russia, whether related to encroachment on Ukrainian territory, the imprisonment of Russian opponent Alexei Navalny or the dissemination of misinformation in our democracies, “during a press conference with Maas.
In return, Maas expressed that his country would make efforts to address these concerns: “We are aware of the aspirations in Washington, and it is very important for us to achieve results that Washington can also deal with.”
- Reversal of Nord Stream-2 sanctions: The German-Russian pipeline, which costs approximately $11 billion and is about to end, continues to disrupt relations; Merkel insists that the project is economic and poses no threat to the diversification of energy sources. The United States fears that the allies will be dependent on Russia because of their dependence on Russian gas. This has led to sanctions implemented on the project and its companies, but with the arrival of the new administration, which continues to object, the United States has retreated from its sanctions on national security grounds.
This move came through a report on Russian sanctions, submitted by the State Department to Congress on May 20, when it was explained that Nord Stream IG and its CEO Mathias Warnig were engaged in a punishable activity under US law, but the administration would lift or waive the sanction on national security grounds. This was welcomed by Merkel and was considered a “constructive step” by Maas.
The United States administration believes that pressure will not work on this file, the cancellation of the project, if it happens, will force the German government to pay massive compensation to the investing companies, and that’s why Germany will not waive it, and the wisest is the heavy pressure on Germany in other files.
It’s also noticeable that Merkel’s visit, while important and symbolic, was not the only sign of warmth, as German officials’ visits to Washington have become intense. For example, Hendrik Royler, the chief economic adviser, met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Katherine Tay, the trade representative to discuss the Nord Stream- 2 project, and the economic relations between the two sides, which face a number of challenges, according to the Funke Media Group in Germany.
As well as German Prime Minister Haiko Maas’s visit on 13 July for three days, he visited a Pfizer vaccine production facility in Detroit, to check it out without commenting on the vaccine patent controversy. Then he headed to The Security Council, in New York, to attend a meeting on the Libyan crisis, and he commented saying: “we need all international actors to cooperate, and to withdraw all mercenaries and foreign soldiers”
Finally, the Commander of the German Air Force, went to Washington to discuss cooperation.
Joe Biden’s administration seeks to create a wall to counter consecutive challenges that may undermine the standing Western powers, primarily the United States, and that is in the context of changing power balances, and has therefore created a number of opportunities to strengthen dialogue with Germany, with the aim of:
- Confronting the Chinese influence: the rise of China in the world as an economic power has been a threat to the standing of the United States, and it became a competitor to it on many issues, as well as its growing influence and relations in Central and Eastern Europe through the 17+1 initiative, of the 17 countries, ten have signed memoranda of understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative with: Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia in 2015, Latvia in 2016, Greece, Portugal, Austria in 2018, and Italy in 2019. Merkel also pushed under the EU precedence for a comprehensive investment agreement between China and the EU in December 2020. While China has become Germany’s largest trading partner, Berlin insists on the importance of cooperating with China on global issues, such as climate change and the pandemic. Therefore, the United States wants to encourage Germany to confront the growing Chinese influence and violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, without engaging in military confrontation, or containing and restricting them, and because, in its view, its movements pose a challenge to the world order and must be preserved.
- Russian deterrence: Biden has adopted a strong tone towards the Russian President Vladimir Putin” since he took over, calling him a “murderer”, and that he’ll pay for his attempt to undermine the American elections. He also accused Moscow of conducting several cyber-attacks against American institutions, which has led to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States, and imposing sanctions as a response to these attacks.
The summit between Biden and Putin did not lead to any shift in the relations but has contributed to reducing the hostility, but Moscow still poses a challenge to Washington’s allies and Ukraine, which continues to be threatened by the Russian border. Therefore, Biden seeks to strengthen cooperation with Germany, which claims that its relations with Russia are within the economic framework and that it criticizes Russia’s violations towards neighboring countries, and supports the sanctions implemented by the European Union on Russian officials, and condemns Krenlin’s attempted assassination of Russian opponent Alexei Navalny.
- Reinforcement of the Atlantic axis: Biden stressed the need for coordination among allies, explaining the importance of NATO to their interests, yet he faces a number of new challenges when dealing with Russia and China, therefore, Germany counts as a strong ally that the United States wants to bridge the rift that Trump has created with them. Taking advantage of the geospatial and logistical potential on German soil to face the growing challenges facing them, Germany is one of the most important and significant bases of the American presence in Europe, a center for the United States military deployment in Europe and many other regions, such as the United States Armoured Combat Brigade team deployed in Poland, and from the Joint Command Headquarters at Stuttgart Base, the Americans, and Europeans coordinating their operations in Africa.
Awaf Nohr is also the largest NATO training facility in Europe. Ramstein Air Base, located in Renania Platina, NATO’s central base for training units, is a logistical start-up for operations in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Africa. In addition to the presence of the largest military medical center outside the United States in Landstor near Ramstein to care for wounded American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as German military forces under German laws and regulations.
It’s expected that the recent proactive actions of the United States administration towards Germany will be reflected in the course of their relations, and their effectiveness will depend on what Germany will offer the United States and European powers, first and foremost Ukraine and Poland, as well as on the extent to which it can develop a clear vision of Russia and China to define a compatible approach that can be adopted in the context of successive global transformations.
Merkel’s last visit is expected to be a re-evaluation of relations and a prelude to the post-conflict phase, especially if Armin Lachet, the conservative politician and president of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who describes himself as the continuity candidate, takes over as Chancellor as successor to Merkel,
Lachet, obviously, will focus on the European Union, strengthening transatlantic relations, committing to increased military spending and enhancing cooperation with the United States on issues of common concern. Concerning Russia, he refused to suspend the Nord Stream-2 project, but that did not mean that he did not criticize the Russian use of Navalny.
China, on the other hand, is expected to continue Merkel’s approach of condemning human rights violations without affecting trade relations between the two sides.