January 22, 2021

How Germany Can Work With Biden to Rebuild Trans-Atlantic Ties

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Bild: Angela Merkel und Joe Biden in Berlin
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Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president was greeted with deep relief in Berlin, as it was in most other European capitals. After Donald Trump’s presidency—which was characterized by animosity toward Germany and repeated attempts to sow division among European countries—German policymakers hope that some immediate sources of tension can now be resolved, such as Trump’s tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports or the long-running trans-Atlantic dispute over aerospace subsidies. There are also multiple opportunities for Germany to collaborate on key strategic challenges with Biden, a committed multilateralist and Atlanticist, who has repeatedly underlined the value of a strong and united Europe.

However, rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations after four years of attacks and tensions will require Germany to take the lead in tackling difficult issues across the Atlantic and within the European Union. The foundations for revived cooperation will need to be solidly established during the first six to eight months of Biden’s presidency, as Germany will hold federal elections on Sept. 26. Coalition negotiations and the formation of a new government can take several months.

Meanwhile, there is concern in Berlin that Biden’s attention may turn mostly inward given the difficult domestic situation in the United States, with the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deep political damage from the Trump administration. So efforts are underway in European capitals to invite Biden to Europe at an early stage, to participate in the annual Munich Security Conference—which was initially scheduled for February but has been postponed due to the pandemic—and for meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders.

From Germany’s perspective, there are multiple opportunities to work with Biden on enhancing multilateralism, with the first priority being the joint fight against COVID-19. Here, a welcome example of German-American cooperation has already been established, as the Mainz-based vaccine startup BioNTech and the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer successfully partnered to develop and distribute a highly effective coronavirus vaccine. Under Biden’s leadership, the U.S. will likely rejoin the World Health Organization and resume funding for it. Within and beyond the WHO, the German government is seeking to advance cooperation on fighting the pandemic and distributing vaccines fairly, including to developing countries. This shared challenge, plus the need to tackle the deepening economic repercussions of the pandemic, may be used to revive multilateral formats like the G-7.

Climate change is another key priority given the next annual U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, scheduled for November, and Biden’s stated readiness to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Of course, discussions on both the coronavirus and climate change should include the Chinese alongside Americans and Europeans.

European leaders also expect Biden to recommit the U.S. to NATO—accompanied, Berlin would hope, with a cancellation of Trump’s decision to move large numbers of U.S. troops out of Germany. Last, but by far not least, reforming the World Trade Organization is an important priority for Germany. The EU drafted reform proposals in 2018 that tried to anticipate U.S. criticism of the WTO, but they were unsurprisingly not picked up by the Trump administration.

Even as Berlin looks forward to collaborating with the Biden administration, a number of contentious issues are likely to be on the bilateral agenda in the coming months. First, German and other European policymakers may not meet U.S. expectations with regard to China, given the divergent framing of the challenges posed by Beijing, and of the economic interests involved, on either side of the Atlantic. From Washington’s perspective, preventing China from overtaking the U.S. as the leading world power is key. Its overarching goal is to increase leverage over China.

Rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations after four years of tensions with the U.S. will require Germany to tackle difficult issues across the Atlantic and within the European Union.

But the idea of stopping China’s rise is not a guiding theme of German or EU policy. The way that Europeans look at the relationship is more pragmatic—or, U.S. officials might say, shortsighted. Merkel, who visited China almost every year during her 15 years in office, has consistently emphasized the importance of business and research ties for both sides. Policymakers in Berlin emphasize that it is exactly through these close relations that Germany can raise sensitive issues with Beijing, such as human rights, even though European and American observers regularly criticize Germany for not doing enough.

Germany does not agree with the recent U.S. efforts to “decouple” from China, which Berlin doesn’t see as a winning strategy. However, U.S. and European officials should be able to agree on the need to reduce dependency on China when it comes to supply chains, a discussion which has particularly been driven by the race to procure adequate medical supplies amid the pandemic. They also share an interest in fair competition rules and hope to fight the systemic theft of intellectual property.

Biden’s team clearly hoped the EU would make this a matter of trans-Atlantic cooperation, rather than pushing through the recent China-EU investment deal under Germany’s six-month EU presidency, which ended on Dec. 31. Still, this issue alone will not pose a major impediment to trans-Atlantic cooperation, as Biden will want Europe on his side as he tries to stand up to Beijing.

Russia policy is another potential point of contention between Berlin and Washington. Germany hopes Biden will be more measured in his approach to one of the largest infrastructure projects in Europe, Nord Stream II, an expansion of the existing pipeline running under the Baltic Sea bringing Russian gas to Germany. The new $11 billion pipeline, which is being built by Russia’s state energy giant, Gazprom, has been delayed by U.S. sanctions, with new ones announced Monday and more reportedly on the way. There are hopes in Berlin that the new administration will choose engagement and dialogue with Germany, as a pause in the sanctions or even a moratorium on their implementation could provide space for a deeper strategic conversation on how to deal with Russia. In the end, though, Biden cannot afford to appear weak against the Kremlin.

On Iran, the German government and Biden’s team seem to share an interest in reviving the 2015 deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program that Trump withdrew from in 2018. However, the foreign policy establishment in Berlin is well-aware that Biden will face strong domestic constraints, as his critics may be looking for ways to accuse Biden of being soft on China, Russia or Iran.

Finally, Germany’s leaders have their own constraints to tackle in their approach to the Biden administration, particularly with regard to the EU. The top priority for the next German government will be to hold the EU together during a tumultuous period. But even as Biden and his aides—many of whom are well-known to their German and European counterparts—seek to rebuild trans-Atlantic ties, their policies may have unintentionally divisive effects. For instance, with the Brexit process now complete, the United Kingdom can no longer serve as Washington’s access point to the EU, and Berlin is keen to avoid being seen as London’s replacement in this regard. Some in Berlin worry that over-privileging German-American ties could alienate France and other partners on the continent. Germany also would like to ensure that Europe cultivates its future “strategic autonomy”—or “European sovereignty,” as the German government prefers calling it—in a way that is compatible with a closer relationship with Washington.

The challenge on all of these fronts will be to develop both EU policies and trans-Atlantic relations in a way that ensures they are mutually reinforcing, rather than in conflict with each other.

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This article was originally published by World Politics Review on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

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