Fresh Start or False Dawn?

Kai Oppermann

Chemnitz University of Technology

Kai Oppermann is Professor of International Politics at the Chemnitz University of Technology. He has previously held positions at the University of Sussex, King’s College London, and the University of Cologne. His research centers on the domestic sources of European integration and foreign policy with a focus on transatlantic relations and British and German foreign policy. Dr. Oppermann won a Marie Curie Fellowship for a research project on EU referendums and worked as a specialist advisor to the House of Lords External Affairs Sub-Committee in the UK. His work has been published in international peer-reviewed journals such as European Journal of International Relations, West European Politics, Foreign Policy Analysis, Journal of European Public Policy, and British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Oppermann is a co-editor at German Politics and an associate editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Foreign Policy Analysis (2018). He regularly gives media interviews on topics related to German and British foreign policy and transatlantic relations.

At AICGS, Dr. Oppermann will research the Biden administration’s expectations of German foreign and security policy. The project takes a theoretical perspective which emphasizes the importance of such expectations for the trajectory of German foreign and security policy as well as for the future shape of U.S.-German relations. Specifically, the views of the Biden administration will impact ongoing domestic debates in Germany about the changing strategic environment and international responsibilities of German foreign and security policy, and they will delineate the scope for U.S.-German cooperation and conflict in foreign and security policy.

In the empirical analysis, the project zooms in on expectations of the Biden administration in four areas high on the agenda of U.S.-German relations in the coming years: a) Germany’s contributions to NATO, b) Germany’s role in the post-Brexit EU27, c) German support for the United States in multilateral diplomacy, and d) Germany’s relations with Russia and China. For each of these areas, the project pursues three interrelated research questions that explore the direction (what?), salience (how important?), and relationship to Germany’s past and current foreign policy (demand for change?) of the Biden administration’s expectations.

The DAAD/AICGS Research Fellowship is supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office.

Prospects for U.S.-German relations in the post-Merkel era

The pieces in U.S.-German relations are in flux. With the ‘traffic light’ coalition between the SPD, Greens, and FDP in office, German foreign and security policy is under new management after sixteen years under Chancellor Angela Merkel. While there is no reason to expect radical departures from Germany’s existing foreign policy orientation, the new coalition government will still bring in different perspectives on Germany’s international relationships. How this affects the direction of German foreign and security policy will be closely observed by other players on the international stage which have their own views on what the new German government should or should not do in foreign affairs. This includes the Biden administration in the United States, which will want to see how its priorities for U.S.-German relations align with the outlook of the new government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Less than one year in office itself, the Biden administration has been sending strong signals that it wants to rebuild the U.S.-German partnership, and it will be quick to explore the scope for deeper cooperation with the new German government on a range of international issues. Given that the United States is one of Germany’s closest and most important allies, in turn, the views of the Biden administration will carry significant weight in the German debate and reverberate with the foreign policy thinking of the ‘traffic light’ coalition in Berlin. It will be during the early phase of their relationship when perceptions of each other are not yet fully formed that mutual understandings between the two governments must be negotiated and that the foundations for their longer-term relations must be laid.

Against this backdrop, this paper aims to map out what the Biden administration expects from the new German government on key aspects of U.S.-German relations and how these expectations tie in with the positions of the ‘traffic light’ coalition. It presents initial findings from a series of more than twenty interviews with foreign policy experts in Washington, DC, between October and December 2021. The interviewees cover a broad range of expertise on diverse issues in transatlantic relations and were drawn from across the political spectrum. They include researchers at major think tanks, academics, staff members in Congress, and representatives of the German political foundations in Washington. The discussion will start with a couple of general observations and then zoom in on a selection of the most important issues on the current transatlantic agenda.

High expectations of the Scholz government

On the most general level, interviewees agreed that the Biden administration is quite upbeat about working with the new German government. There is a strong sense in the administration that the ‘traffic light’ coalition will be better aligned with its international priorities than the previous German government, and the administration believes that the Scholz government will be less wedded to some of the legacy thinking of the Merkel era, for example on China. Olaf Scholz personally is well known in the Biden administration from his previous role as Germany’s finance minister and has a reputation as a solid and reliable pragmatist. There are more concerns with his party, the SPD, which is associated with ambivalent views on Russia and China as well as NATO-critical voices in its left wing. That being said, the expectation is that Olaf Scholz as chancellor will be able to ensure that the more radical ideas from within his party will have no bearing on the government’s foreign policy.

Germany could not hope for a U.S. administration that is better disposed to Germany than the Biden administration.

Much of the Biden administration’s optimistic outlook, however, is pinned on the Greens, which are seen to take the hardest line of the coalition partners on China and Russia. At the same time, some doubts persist about how prepared the Greens will be to use Germany’s international leverage to follow up on their strong rhetoric. There are also questions about how much of a mark the Greens and the new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock will actually be able to leave on German foreign policy, given that many of the major items in the foreign affairs portfolio were dealt with in the Chancellery under the previous government. Turning to the smallest coalition partner, the FDP is seen as a staunchly pro-transatlantic party, which has, however, lost some of its traditional interest in foreign affairs. Since it does not hold any ministry in the foreign and security policy executive, it is not expected to be a major influence on the coalition’s foreign policy.

The favorable views of the Biden administration on the ‘traffic light’ coalition can build on a relatively high profile that Germany enjoys in the administration. Interviewees commented on the strong Germany expertise in the Biden team, pointing to people like Amanda Sloat, Karen Donfried, and Julie Smith, and there was a consensus that the administration sees Germany as the pivotal economic and political force in Europe. The new German government should thus have good access to the administration, and there was a view among interviewees that Germany could not hope for a U.S. administration that is better disposed to Germany than the Biden administration.

The other side of the coin, however, is that the Biden administration’s positive outlook on Germany and its new government comes with the clear expectation that the coalition steps up on the international stage. Most fundamentally, this means that the administration wants to see the Scholz government adapt Germany’s thinking about foreign and security policy to a changing geopolitical environment. While U.S. foreign policymakers on both sides of the aisle have become ever more frustrated with what they saw as the inability or unwillingness of the Merkel governments to acknowledge that such change is happening, the Biden administration counts on the ‘traffic light’ coalition to adopt a different mindset. This expectation extends across all major issues on the current agenda of U.S.-German relations but affects them in specific ways.

Systemic rivalry with China

The relationship with China is easily the top foreign policy priority of the Biden administration. This is also one of the few foreign policy issues that can mobilize bipartisan support in U.S. politics. The administration sees China as America’s major long-term strategic adversary and expects the new German government to come out more clearly in support of the U.S. agenda on China. In the past, Germany’s approach to China has been one of the main U.S. frustrations with previous German governments, including with Angela Merkel personally. Broadly speaking, the main complaints have been that Germany has been too soft on China, prioritizing its economic interests and failing to appreciate that China poses a fundamental challenge to the liberal international order. While the Biden administration recognizes that German policy on China has already started to shift, it wants to see a tougher and more strategic response to China from the Scholz government. More specifically, its expectations fall into three baskets.

The first basket is Germany’s rhetoric about China. Here, the Biden administration expects the language of the ‘traffic light’ coalition to toughen up on issues such as human rights, democracy, Taiwan, and Chinese meddling in Europe. The general sense is that Germany has been lagging behind the U.S. discourse on China, but that the German debate has been catching up. The recent coalition agreement between SPD, Greens, and FDP represents a further important step in this direction, indicating increasing U.S.-German alignment on the rhetorical level. For example, the coalition agreement uses very similar language to the Biden administration when it talks about China as a systemic rival, takes a clear stance on Taiwan, calls out China for its human rights violations, and supports a coordinated transatlantic approach to China. On a broader level, this rhetorical alignment between the transatlantic partners can also be seen in the 2021 communiqués at the G7, NATO, and EU-U.S. summits. In other words, the ‘rhetoric basket’ will be largely uncontentious between the Biden administration and the Scholz government, in particular with the Greens in office.

The second basket concerns Germany’s political signaling to China. While there is no serious expectation that Germany can make a significant military contribution that would have a meaningful impact on the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration wants the new German government to send strong political signals to China that would affect Beijing’s strategic calculus. Specifically, such signaling should be instrumental in raising China’s expected political and economic costs of military action in the South China Sea and in demonstrating transatlantic unity. Along these lines, the deployment of the frigate “Bayern” to the South China Sea under the last Merkel government was, in principle, welcomed by the Biden administration. At the same time, the decision to seek a port call in Shanghai, which Beijing turned down, was seen to undermine the intended political signal of the deployment. For the Biden administration, this was yet another example of the lack of German strategic thinking about China and yet another ill-judged attempt to take an even-handed approach to China. Going forward, the issue on which the administration most expects strong German political signaling is Taiwan. This includes leading participation of the new German government in a group of allies to threaten China with punitive economic sanctions to deter military action against Taiwan. In addition, the Biden administration would like to see the ‘traffic light’ coalition seek closer diplomatic engagement with Taiwan as well as German support for some of its European partners who have taken the lead in this regard.

The third basket of U.S. expectations largely coincides with the agenda of the new U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC). This agenda is of the highest priority to the Biden administration and it is here that Germany arguably matters most, given its economic weight. Consequently, the Biden administration places a high value on strong and positive contribution of the Scholz government in this area. By way of contrast, the economy-focused approach of the previous German government to trade and technology relations with China was often seen as a major irritant in Washington, not least the decision of Angela Merkel to try and push through with the now abortive EU-China Investment Agreement (CAI) without consultation and when the Biden administration was in transition. From the new German government, the Biden administration hopes to see what it would describe as a less naïve and more risk-aware, clear-eyed approach. Along these lines, the administration appreciates that views in Germany, including German industry, have been gradually changing, and it welcomes, in particular, the tougher line Germany has adopted on investment screening. More broadly, the Biden administration wishes to cooperate more closely with the ‘traffic light’ coalition on a whole bundle of issues on the TTC agenda, including standards setting, supply chain resilience, and export controls.

Russia and Nord Stream 2

The Biden administration’s perspective on Germany’s Russia policy can be seen along similar lines as its views on Germany’s policy on China. Again, the Merkel governments have repeatedly received U.S. criticism for being too soft on Russia and for seeing the relationship with Russia primarily in economic terms, paying too little attention to the geopolitical dimension. Like with China, however, the Biden administration sees and welcomes a gradual shift in the German debate about Russia, both in rhetoric and on the issue of sanctions. Broadly speaking, the Biden administration wants the Scholz government to build on this changing outlook on Russia in two ways. One, it would like to see the new government become more engaged diplomatically to make the Kremlin back away from further military aggression in eastern Ukraine. Two, it expects the ‘traffic light’ coalition to endorse ever more muscular and forward-leaning sanctions against Russia which the Biden administration sees as the main policy tool to deter Russia from taking military action in Eastern Ukraine or to punish Russia should such action happen.

The most controversial issue between the United States and Germany in relation to Russia, however, remains Nord Stream 2. As part of its outreach to Germany, the Biden administration decided not to try and obstruct the completion of the pipeline and to waive sanctions against German companies that are involved in the project, primarily in the interest of not letting transatlantic differences on Nord Stream 2 stand in the way of deeper cooperation between the two sides on higher priority issues. Most interviewees were highly critical of this decision for a variety of reasons, including because it sends the wrong signal to Russia, disregards the security interests of Central and Eastern European countries, and undercuts critical voices about the pipeline within Germany, most notably the Greens. Another line of criticism against the U.S.-German agreement on Nord Stream 2 accuses the Biden administration of caving in to Germany and making concessions without tangible returns. The Biden administration continues to pay a heavy political price for the agreement in Congress, where it has become a rallying point for Republican political attacks on what they portray as government weakness on Russia.

In a marked shift from previous U.S. administrations, moreover, the Biden administration does not oppose the idea of European “strategic autonomy” in principle but wants to see what it means in practice and how it can contribute to transatlantic security.

More importantly for this research, there was a strong consensus among interviewees that the agreement on Nord Stream 2 has not succeeded in neutralizing the issue as a possible source of friction in the U.S.-German relationship. Rather, it remains a critical touchstone for how the ‘traffic light’ coalition will deal with Russia. Specifically, interviewees argued that the ball is now in Germany’s court and that the big test of the new German government on Russia will be whether it lives up to the letter and spirit of the U.S.-German agreement. Specifically, the Biden administration expects that the Scholz government honors the pledge to respond, on the national level and in Europe, if Russia weaponizes energy or takes aggressive action against Ukraine. Russia’s current behavior on the Ukrainian border is clearly putting that pledge to a test, and the Biden administration, as well as Congress, will observe closely what the German response will be and where the new German government draws the red lines.

Leadership in Europe

The third issue area in which the Biden administration articulates clear expectations of the new German government relates to the future trajectory of the EU. The administration has a pro-EU outlook and speaks out in favor of strong EU action on the international stage. It believes that Germany is essential for this, and the administration would like to see the Scholz government use Germany’s economic and political leverage to provide stronger leadership in the EU and to hold the EU together. Specifically, it wants the ‘traffic light’ coalition to push the EU to become more engaged in its immediate neighborhood, most notably in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Western Balkans. The administration also expects the new government to do more than the Merkel governments to counter democratic backsliding within the EU, in particular in Hungary and Poland. At least on a rhetorical level, these expectations chime in with the strongly pro-European tone of the coalition agreement in which the new government accepts a “special responsibility” for the EU as a whole. The agreement commits the coalition government to an “active European policy” that works to strengthen the EU’s foreign and security policy and to stand up for EU values and the rule of law.

In a marked shift from previous U.S. administrations, moreover, the Biden administration does not oppose the idea of European “strategic autonomy” in principle but wants to see what it means in practice and how it can contribute to transatlantic security. It counts on the new German government to direct the idea away from French designs which it suspects are ultimately about developing an alternative to NATO. To that purpose, it expects the ‘traffic light’ coalition to fully lean into the debate about European strategic autonomy, rather than remain on the sidelines as the Merkel governments largely did. This resonates with the coalition agreement which endorses the idea of European “strategic sovereignty” but makes clear that this must be complementary to NATO. Specifically, the new German government is expected to orient EU strategic thinking more towards security challenges in Central and Eastern Europe. If this succeeds, the Biden administration believes that European strategic autonomy can contribute to a transatlantic division of labor in which the EU, led by Germany, takes on more responsibilities for European security, enabling the United States to focus its resources even more on the strategic rivalry with China. This is seen as particularly relevant in light of increasing concerns about a possible synchronization of Chinese and Russian diplomatic and military behavior, in which case a strong European capability to respond to Russian aggression is seen as essential.

Defense spending and nuclear sharing

In the context of transatlantic security, interviewees also discussed Germany’s role in NATO, focusing on two specific aspects. First, there was broad agreement that the Biden administration appreciates the increases in German defense spending over recent years and expects the Scholz government to continue this trend. At the same time, most experts have suggested that the issue is less of a priority for the Biden administration than it was for the Trump administration. Most notably, the administration seems to be taking a more flexible view on what should count towards the spending pledges agreed at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. While this comes up against strong criticism from the Republican side of the debate, it represents a significant change in emphasis that aligns with longstanding arguments in the German debate. It defuses potential friction with the ‘traffic light’ coalition, two partners of which—the SPD and the Greens—have been openly critical of the spending pledges. In fact, the coalition agreement does not explicitly commit to NATO’s 2 percent target, but rather loosely talks about honoring Germany’s commitments in NATO. The coalition agreement suggests a very broad understanding of these commitments, moreover, when it articulates the long-term ambition to spend 3 percent of German GDP on external action, which is seen to include, for example, diplomacy and development aid. It is easy to see how the apparent U.S.-German convergence in this regard may over time result in a watering down of the NATO spending targets.

The second NATO-related aspect that came up in the interviews is nuclear sharing. The issue was put on the agenda by some voices within the SPD during the election campaign, including the chairman of the party’s parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, that seemed to question Germany’s continued participation in this arrangement. While the debate in Germany was noted within the Biden administration and did not help to dispel lingering doubts about the SPD’s commitment to NATO, it did ultimately not lead to serious concerns that the Scholz government might unilaterally withdraw from nuclear sharing. The administration’s litmus test for Germany’s longer-term commitment to nuclear sharing, however, was that it expected the ‘traffic light’ coalition to send a clear signal that it will stick to plans of the previous German government to replace the Bundeswehr’s aging fleet of Tornados with nuclear-capable aircraft. This is precisely what the coalition agreement seems to deliver when it pledges to procure a new generation of combat aircraft “in light of nuclear sharing” early on in the new government’s term in office.

U.S.-German alignment, but domestic politics may get in the way

Looking at the current transatlantic agenda on the whole, the overall finding of this research points to significant alignment between the Biden administration’s expectations of German foreign and security policy and the positions of the new German government. The evidence indicates growing U.S.-German convergence on a range of ongoing challenges in transatlantic relations, including China, even though possible sources of friction remain, for example, Nord Stream 2. Still, on a programmatic level and in terms of the general predispositions of the governments in Washington and Berlin, the prospects for strong U.S.-German relations look better than for quite some time.

The administration expects the new German government to fully engage with its international agenda, rather than to hedge against the risk that it might not be reelected.

In closing, however, it is important to flag the most likely spoiler of a fresh start in U.S.-German cooperation, which is domestic politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the United States, it is not difficult to think of multiple ways in which domestic pressures and dynamics may work to undo U.S.-German alignment. Interviewees were united in the view that the Biden administration looks at foreign policy, including U.S.-German relations, very much through the prism of domestic politics. This is an administration that sees itself in a struggle for the future of American democracy and that defines its main mission as preventing a return of Trumpism in 2024. Foreign policy, in turn, is deeply entwined with this domestic agenda, which is best epitomized by the administration’s stated objective to pursue a “foreign policy for the middle class.” With the domestic window of opportunity potentially closing at the midterms in 2022, moreover, the Biden administration is under great pressure to deliver domestic results and quickly. Interviewees have therefore described the administration’s approach to foreign policy as unusually results-driven, at times at the neglect of process, as can perhaps be seen in the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS deal.

The prospects for U.S.-German relations in the coming years can thus not be understood without seeing the Biden administration’s very tight domestic room for maneuver. This also means that the Biden administration will need to have something to show for in the domestic arena from its outreach to Germany and other European allies. To that end, the administration expects the new German government to fully engage with its international agenda, rather than to hedge against the risk that it might not be reelected. The concern is that this is not always well understood in the German debate, which is at times quick to criticize the Biden administration without accounting for its tight domestic constraints. This is only complicated by the fact that the new German government has domestic politics, too, and similarly faces a challenging domestic agenda, not least in the context of COVID-19. It has its work cut out to maintain the support of all three coalition partners and will be on a steep learning curve during its first year in office. There is a real risk, therefore, that the current moment of U.S.-German alignment will pass before significant progress on the transatlantic agenda has been made.

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.