September-October 2021 Articles

Not Only Partners and Allies but Close Friends

Chancellor Merkel and President Biden Meet to Reinforce the Western Alliance

Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Washington this summer for what was at once a last hurrah in her role as Chancellor of Germany and a valedictory for the central role she has played in the politics of Europe and the diplomacy of the Atlantic alliance. She has been a fixture of German politics and a voice of reason in Transatlantic relations for 16 years, time enough to preside over the institutionalization of a united Germany, steer a course through global economic downturn, confront the deadly realities of a pandemic that literally mutates before it can be controlled, and to deal with a succession of four quite different U.S. presidents – George W. Bush, Barak Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Merkel’s Chancellorship represents a series of milestones:  Germany’s first woman Chancellor; its first Chancellor from the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany; the first quantum chemist (Ph.D., Academy of Sciences – East Berlin) to hold that office; and Germany’s second longest serving Chancellor, with an outside chance of breaking Helmut Kohl’s record of 5,869 days in that office (1982-1998). Merkel has already announced her decision not to seek another term.  German elections are scheduled for October 24th, leaving Merkel roughly two months shy of breaking Kohl’s record. But, if there is delay in forming a new German government and if Merkel stayed through December 17, 2021, then she could conceivably break Helmut Kohl’s record for time in office.

But, it is not length of service that distinguishes Chancellor Merkel’s leadership. It is her character.  In President Biden’s words it is her “career of strong principled leadership, willingness to speak out for what is right and never failing to defend human dignity, and continued support for the longstanding goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”
These same themes were reiterated as Chancellor Merkel received the Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree from Johns Hopkins University and its School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  University President Ronald Daniels lauded Merkel for helping to keep democracy alive during her tenure as “a vocal defender of human rights even in the midst of growing nationalism and isolation. Chancellor Angela Merkel,” he continued, “has not only led Germany but been a beacon for the world during crises from the Great Recession to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Bringing a scientist’s rigor to policy and a deep humanity to politics, she has defended the values of open discourse, freedom of inquiry, and human flourishing that lie at the heart of democratic society and its institutions.”

There was much more to the Chancellor’s visit than a farewell visit and a valedictory tour d’horizon of problems and complications facing the world with the new American president, however. This was a tightly scheduled working visit and the culmination of a great deal of behind the scenes preparatory diplomatic negotiation. The goal was to shore up the foundations of the U.S.-German relationship and the Transatlantic Alliance that had been seriously undermined by the hostile rhetoric of the previous presidential administration.

Beyond Principles . . . Edging Toward Action

What emerged from Chancellor Merkel’s visit alongside the pomp and ceremony that surrounded it was a seminal document dubbed the “Washington Declaration,” closely akin to the “New Atlantic Charter” signed between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden during their meeting in Cornwall earlier in the summer. Both documents represent a reiteration and updating of the “Atlantic Charter” framed by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941 that offered a blue print for the internationalism of the post-World War II world. No documentary statement can be a panacea for the world’s problems, but the Washington Declaration is certainly intended as the antidote to the prickliness of U.S.-European relations in recent years.

While the Washington Declaration is intended as a statement of foundational concepts – “a shared commitment to democratic principles: defending an open world; a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace; ensuring that the rules, norms, and standards that govern emerging technologies are channeled toward freedom rather than repression; and, leading in the development of global solutions to shared challenges” – the principles stated in the document have a sharply honed edge just beneath their surface generality.

A shared commitment to democratic principles translates to a sharper statement of shared commitment to defending human rights. “We uphold the universal values at the heart of the United Nations Charter and stand together in our commitment to promote respect for human rights everywhere, including by rejecting and responding in concert to violations of human rights.” Words are always easier to agree on than actions, but this language seems to imply a willingness to confront human rights violators by name and with an enhanced degree of determination.

The commitment to defending an open world is focused on two current challenges – preserving freedom of the seas and resistance to the rebirth of the Cold War model of spheres of influence.  “As two nations whose economies depend on the free transit of goods around the world,” assert Biden and Merkel, “we affirm the critical importance of the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea, consistent with international law. This vision is unachievable in a world carved into competing spheres of influence, and we will resist attempts to create them.”  Though veiled, the references to the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, cybersecurity concerns, and the weaponizing of technology are unmistakable.

The vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace becomes more than the restatement of an ideal when it is paired with concerns about “democratic backsliding, disinformation, corruption and interference in our elections.” “Where outside powers present barriers to the realization of this vision,” Germany and the United States avow, “we will join together to collectively strengthen our defense, cultivate our resilience, and enhance our solidarity. NATO will remain the cornerstone of this effort, and our commitment to Article 5 (collective defense) is ironclad.”

Channeling technological development “toward freedom rather than repression” goes beyond a standard statement of deepening cooperation on scientific and applied research to insist that “the major innovations of this century advance democratic governance, rather than authoritarianism.”  “States,” Merkel and Biden assert, “need to protect the rights of citizens, and we will resist the use and spread of surveillance technologies to improperly restrict the exercise of human rights.” The message regarding surveillance of citizens and personal identification techniques to suppress political and civil rights and technologically limit basic human freedoms is pointed.

Though leading in the development of global solutions sounds a vague goal, two recognitions are vital. First, the very use of the word “global” itself has been suspect in recent years, seen by critics as an omen of creeping internationalism that threatens the deepest commitments to the concept of national sovereignty. Second, the idea that there should be a “collective response” to these global issues runs counter to the strains of nationalistic populism that have sought a rhetorically appealing but ineffective autarky in the face transboundary challenges. Pointedly, the Washington Declaration names three such potent challenges – the climate crisis, health security and resilience (the apparent word of the hour) against future pandemics, and a fair, inclusive, sustainable rules-based economy.

To continue the work the underlies the text of the Washington Declaration, Merkel and Biden also announced the creation of two on-going diplomatic conversations – a U.S.-German Futures Forum and a U.S.-German Economic Dialogue – intended to “utilize the expertise and innovative power of our societies and recommend solutions to jointly shape our future.”

Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline

True to real world politics and inevitable diplomatic impasses, however, there was one issue on which Merkel and Biden had to resort to the classic diplomatic maneuver of agreeing to disagree. That issue was the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which critics fear will make Germany and Europe dependent on Russia for future energy supplies thereby introducing a critical vulnerability into the European community and the NATO alliance.

More immediately, the pipeline could also provide Russia additional leverage on Ukraine, which currently derives substantial income as a transit country through which a major Russian pipeline passes. When (if) the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea, becomes operational Russia could potentially bypass Ukraine and significantly impact that former Soviet republic’s national economy. Were that to happen, Ukraine could stand to lose roughly $2 billion in annual transit payments from Russia. Minus dependence on the gas pipeline through Ukraine, Russia would have a freer hand to pressure that country’s government.

The United States has persistently indicated its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project, but the demanding energy needs of Germany’s economy have made that country a primary supporter of the pipeline.  In Chancellor Merkel’s words, Germany and the U.S. “have two different assessments as to what this project entails.  Our idea is and remains that Ukraine represents a transit country for natural gas; that Ukraine, just as any other country in the world, has a right to territorial sovereignty, which is why Germany has become engaged in the Minsk Process seeking peaceful resolution of conflicts in Central Europe and the Donbas Region.”  She continued with an assurance that Germany would actively respond to any effort by Russia to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty adding that Germany and the U.S. were continuing to talk about “how we can make this very clear together.”

Though Merkel’s White House visit hit an impasse on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline issue, just a week after signing the Washington Declaration, Germany and the United States seemed to find a diplomatic work-around to finesse their pipeline disagreements. The Biden administration found itself caught in the midst of a devil’s dilemma: though the U.S. has persistently opposed completion of the pipeline, it was doubtful that sanctions imposed by the U.S., at the cost of undermining the newly reinforced foundations of U.S.-German relations, could prevent completion of the pipeline.  Despite Congressional howls that Ukraine was being betrayed, a deal with Germany seemed better to the White House than a protracted and likely futile disagreement that could that could corrode relations with Germany.

In exchange for an end to American efforts to block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany agreed to invest in Ukraine’s green technology infrastructure and to work together on concerted efforts to reduce Russia’s energy dominance. The short-term message is that Germany and the United States will collaborate to block any Russian efforts to bypass Ukraine’s sovereignty and change its borders.  The longer term goal is to jointly develop renewable, sustainable energy sources for Europe that will reduce the continent’s dependence on Russian energy.

Responding to a World of Challenges

The reality of diplomacy is that even the most cordial conversations and the most carefully negotiated agreements must be operationalized. Words on paper are a crucial beginning to creating functional collaboration between states, but actions on the ground – predictable, substantial and sustained – are the critical investment in peaceful cooperation between states, the collaborative resolution of disputes, and the sustained development of economies and human capital. That is the work that was begun during the preparations for Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington.

As Chancellor Merkel said to President Biden, “Thank you for making it possible to talk to you.”  How ironic that a sitting German head of government should think it necessary to thank an American president for making it possible to talk. But, then, the relationship between Germany and the United States has been severely strained in recent years. Merkel concluded, “We share the same values, but simply committing to these values is certainly not sufficient. We are living at a crucial moment in time where we are facing new challenges, and those challenges need to be translated into practical policies.” In other words, to borrow from Henry IV and Sherlock Holmes. “The game is afoot.”

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