by John B. Emerson and Sigmar Gabriel
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what had been the primary influence on his government when he held office. His response was: “Events, dear boy, events.” We are reminded of this as we watch tensions flare over the Russian troop build-up along the border with Ukraine and the international response.
Governments are always confronted with unforeseen events, and these can serve as catalysts to shape policies and positions, but they can also be a litmus test of leadership. Barely 50 days into office, the new German government has been confronted with its first stress test – and its response has raised doubts about whether Germany is a reliable partner in facing international challenges.
With a transatlanticist in the White House who is committed to multilateralism, Germany has the opportunity to step up.
These events will provide the backdrop for Olaf Scholz’s first trip to Washington DC as Chancellor, and the tensions with Russia over Ukraine will be at the top of the agenda when he meets with President Joe Biden. With a transatlanticist in the White House who is committed to multilateralism, Germany has the opportunity to step up. After weeks of waffling, this will be a chance for Germany to show leadership and commitment to the common cause. Germany cannot be complacent in the face of Russia’s instigated crisis on Europe’s doorstep.
With more than 100,000 Russian soldiers on the border of Ukraine, full-scale war is once again possible in the center of Europe. This should be impossible. The United States, together with Germany, France, and the United Kingdom has conveyed to Russia that an invasion would carry a very high price, but also that it remains committed to diplomacy. Russia cannot doubt that the West is open to dialogue – indeed, this is one of the two pillars of NATO: deterrence and the defense of member states’ freedom and security, along with a conduit for cooperation and dialogue. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, western allies believe firmly in any European nation’s sovereignty.
While Ukraine is not a NATO member, western allies believe firmly in any European nation’s sovereignty.
It is important to remember that the Ukraine crisis is not new. There has been an ongoing war since the spring of 2014 and the Russian incursions into the Donbas region and Crimea – but tensions between Russia and the West about Ukraine have been simmering for much longer than that. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized the opportunity to drive wedges between partners in the West. But, instead, his actions can serve as a catalyst to shift German public opinion (to see the threat posed by Russia) and shape the new German government’s policy toward Russia.
So, what can Germany realistically do?
Germany has done a great deal for Ukraine in terms of security and development. Since 2014, it has provided 1.8 billion US Dollars in economic aid and supported the rule of law and anti-corruption programs for Ukraine. Jointly with France, it leads a diplomatic effort to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian issues called the Normandy format. As a member of the European Union and its largest financial contributor, Germany has financially supported the Ukrainian government since 2014 with 17 billion Euros.
Due to its history, Germany is restricted in its ability to deliver weapons. Berlin could immediately consider providing more than helmets – to show support for Ukraine. This could take the form of protective Kevlar vests, equipment for radio communications, as well as transportation and logistic support. However, there needs to be a frank and open debate in the Bundestag about the contours of German foreign and security policy – and the tangible contributions Germany is willing to provide in the future.
Rather than finger-pointing, a strong transatlantic partnership is built on trust and an unconditional willingness to strengthen cooperation, especially when the partnership is challenged or called into question.
President Biden and Chancellor Scholz need each other. This should give Germany political courage.
In Joe Biden, the United States has a president who, unlike his predecessor, is once again ready to unite and lead the world’s democracies. However, it needs allies in the face of 21st century challenges and volatility – and Germany and Europe also need the United States. Only together can they keep the world in balance while defending and strengthening the world’s democracies.
In short, President Biden and Chancellor Scholz need each other. This should give Germany political courage. Courage to represent its own view of things and to assume a role for Germany and Europe in the negotiations with Russia. Courage, however, also to respond to the expectations of the Biden administration that Germany be prepared to take on more responsibility for Europe’s defense.
The new German government can make a strong commitment to nuclear sharing and announce that it will buy American F-35 aircraft to prevent a looming capability gap until Europe’s own Future Combat Air System is operational. It can pledge to substantially increase German defense spending – but allocate a portion of these additional funds to strengthening the military operational capability of NATO members in Eastern Europe.
In light of the common challenges facing Europe and the United States, we need to come together and present a united front.
While in Washington, Scholz should also make very clear that Berlin is willing to use Nord Stream 2 as a bargaining chip. Russia (and the Soviet Union before that) has been a reliable source of gas for Germany for decades, but that is no longer assured. This crisis underscores that Germany must further diversify its energy supply chain – regardless of whether or not Nord Stream 2 goes online. Wavering on using Nord Stream 2 as possible leverage plays into Putin’s hand. Furthermore, it is worth considering that Putin may already have accepted that the pipeline might never become operational.
In taking such steps, the German Chancellor would move toward the United States and the hand that Joe Biden has held out to Germany for so long. He would put an end to the current blame game and lay the foundation for a constructive new chapter for transatlantic cooperation. Scholz would also deliver an important domestic and foreign policy win to Joe Biden, who could then say that he succeeded in achieving what no U.S. president has been able to do since the end of the Cold War by recognizing that Europe – and Germany in particular – is taking on more responsibility for itself and its defense. This would be courageous and wise: In light of the common challenges facing Europe and the United States, we need to come together, figure out how to address them, and present a united front. Hopefully, when Biden and Scholz meet, they will be able to find consensus and a path forward.
John B. Emerson, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, has been Chairman of the American Council on Germany since 2018. Sigmar Gabriel, former German Vice Chancellor and Federal Minister, has been Chairman of Atlantik-Brücke since 2019. The German version of this article was published in the Tagesspiegel on February 5, 2022.