After a day of meetings with President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel left Washington on Wednesday night. The visit was intended to be a “reset” in the relationship between the two countries after months of tension and insults.
BERLIN— After the acrimony of the Trump era, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s farewell visit to Washington this week will herald a new, warmer tone between the US and Europe, but it will likely accomplish nothing to alter the trans-Atlantic relationship’s long-term divergence of interests.
The chancellor’s last official visit will be to the White House on Thursday to meet with President Joe Biden. After 16 years in power, Ms. Merkel is not standing for re-election in September, a time that spans the periods of four US presidents, beginning with George W. Bush, and has witnessed a weakening of the US-European connection and an increased emphasis on Asia.
Under President Donald Trump, who frequently singled out Germany in his concerns that Europe did not pay its fair share in the trans-Atlantic security system, the drift became a source of conflict, with officials on both sides making no attempt to hide their mutual disdain.
Ms. Merkel said in 2017 that Europe could no longer rely on others for protection and that it needed to take control of its own destiny, a remark that aides said wasn’t just a dig at Mr. Trump’s administration but a call for more European independence amid rising superpower competition between the United States and China.
“The tone has returned to normal, as has the capacity to address all important problems with partners,” a senior German official said. “However, it is obvious that America will not alter certain fundamental policies,” he said. “Trump’s views on a lot of topics were essentially American ones, but he pursued them aggressively.”
A US ambassador in Berlin shared the sentiment, saying the alliance still faces difficulties.
In June, Ms. Merkel met with Vice President Joe Biden at the G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Guido Bergmann
Officials in Germany believe the White House meeting, which will be followed by a dinner given by Mr. and Mrs. Biden for the chancellor and her husband Joachim Sauer, will indicate progress on problems that arose under the previous administration.
According to German aides, the talks will cover the countries’ differing approaches to Russia, including the German-Russian submarine gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, which will double direct Russian gas exports to Germany, the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, relations with Iran, and US efforts to unite the West on China.
In recent years, Nord Stream 2 has been the most vexing issue between the United States and Germany. When completed in August, the project, according to successive US administrations, will give Russian President Vladimir Putin excessive control over Europe’s energy supply, depriving some Eastern European nations of much-needed gas transit revenue and allowing Russia to strategically cut off select nations from gas deliveries as political punishment.
President Biden addressed working with friends, global vaccine contributions, and how the Group of Seven intends to address issues presented by China at a news conference held at the conclusion of the Group of Seven leaders’ meeting in mid-June. (Video from 6/13/21) Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The pipeline, which is majority-owned by the Russian state-controlled oil behemoth Gazprom and managed by a former East German secret police officer, has sparked bipartisan opposition.
Germany claims that the connection will help guarantee its own energy supply, noting that Europe has always purchased oil and gas from Russia, including during the Cold War.
Mr. Biden waived the imposition of US sanctions against the project early this year as a gesture of goodwill. He also reversed Mr. Trump’s intentions to remove US troops from Germany, one of a slew of moves made during his presidency that singled out Berlin.
In recent years, the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been the most vexing issue in US-German ties.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/odd andersen
According to two sources, a hypothetical US-German ceasefire on Nord Stream 2 might involve German assistance to Eastern European allies like Ukraine. Ukraine, which hosts pipelines carrying Russian gas exports to Western Europe, is worried that once Nord Stream 2 is online, Moscow would shut off the faucet, cutting off much-needed income.
However, an individual familiar with the chancellor’s thinking indicated that Germany would not make a firm promise to stop gas imports from Russia if the Kremlin takes any malicious action.
“This is a European problem that can only be dealt with in Europe,” the source added, noting that the United States also buys Russian oil.
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Mr. Biden’s broad foreign policy effort to limit China is also dividing Germany and the United States, according to Julia Friedlander, a former US National Security Council staffer who now works for the Atlantic Council in Washington.
China has long surpassed the United States as Germany’s most significant trading partner, and although it isn’t the country’s biggest export market, it is still one of the most crucial for German businesses. Unlike most of its Western friends, notably the United States, which buy more products from China than they export, Germany maintains a nearly balanced trade relationship with China, highlighting the two economies’ symbiotic connection.
Officials familiar with Ms. Merkel’s views say she is dubious of the notion of decoupling from China in a worldwide economy, and she is aware that Mr. Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping may reach an accord over the heads of European leaders at any moment. They said that Europe, particularly Germany, must develop its own China strategy.
More on the Relationship Between the United States and Germany
Ms. Merkel’s cautious stance reflects, in part, German views of the United States, which have been worsening since the second Iraq war. Only 19 percent of respondents saw the United States as an ally who shares their “values and objectives,” according to a recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The majority of people believe the American political system is dysfunctional.
According to Josef Braml, a German political expert, “Trump was not the cause, but rather the symptom of a fundamental shift in the United States’ relationship with Germany and Europe.”
According to Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund, the Biden administration’s decision to frame the dispute with China as a contrast between democracy and autocracy on issues like human rights has allowed for better cooperation than Mr. Trump’s previous attempts, which focused on China as an economic rival.
Yet, he added, Berlin has yet to reciprocate Mr. Biden’s early concessions, such as removing the restrictions on Nord Stream 2 and reversing Mr. Trump’s decision to remove troops from Germany. This is partially due to the chancellery’s fears that the present thaw in ties with Washington may only be temporary, and that the United States may elect a more disruptive administration in the future, he said.
Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said, “It would pay off to offer something to the Biden administration so they have something to show to the conservative opponents who say it doesn’t pay to go soft on Europe.”
He believes that further progress, particularly on an united China strategy, will have to wait until a new chancellor takes over from Ms. Merkel.
Bojan Pancevski can be reached at [email protected].
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