How Olaf Scholz Can Restore Germany’s Reputation in Washington

If the chancellor wants to maintain Germany’s key role in Europe, he has to send a clear message during his visit to the United States. That includes a commitment to military deterrence.

In June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a meeting with Angela Merkel that “the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany.” When Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, sets off for Washington on Sunday, these words will sound like memories from a distant era.

Germany’s reputation has suffered greatly in recent months. Last week, Emily Haber, the German ambassador to Washington, sent an urgent letter to Berlin. She reported that Germany had been designated an “unreliable partner” on Russia and China policy, that Germany was faced with the threat of immense damage to its reputation and that Republicans regularly spoke of Germany being “in bed with Putin.”

The Biden administration is still publicly maintaining a friendly face, but internally many agree with the criticism. Germany’s Eastern European partners are more direct. Latvian Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks declared Germany’s position toward China and Russia “immoral and sanctimonious.” Scholz must now take vigorous countersteps to regain German credibility. In Washington, he can lay the foundation for this with a clear message on sanctions, a greater contribution to the defense of NATO partners and an ambitious agenda on China policy.

In the Russia Conflict, Scholz Represents a Line of Continuity with Merkel

This is not how Scholz imagined his debut visit to Washington. He would much rather have concentrated on discussing with President Joe Biden the agenda of Germany’s presidency of the group of leading industrial nations under the guiding principle “progress towards an equitable world” and exploring possibilities for cooperation like Scholz’ pet project, an international climate club.

Instead, the focus is on crisis management in security policy. It’s ironic that Scholz seems to be more widely criticized in the United States than his predecessor. Just like Merkel, Scholz is a trans-Atlanticist and a supporter of NATO. Merkel supported the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline for years with just as much enthusiasm as Scholz. And in the current Russia conflict, Scholz represents a line of continuity with Merkel and fully supports the policies of the U.S. government (with the exception of supplying weapons to Ukraine).

However, this has barely gotten through to the public, something Scholz himself is responsible for. He spoke early on of the high price Vladimir Putin would have to pay for another invasion of Ukraine. However, Scholz has long lacked clarity about sanctions. When he finally held the Social Democratic Party leadership to the formula of “all sanctions are on the table” in mid-January, many foreign critics had already formed the impression of a chancellor for whom the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was more important than defending the European peace order.

Now, the meeting with President Biden in Washington gives Scholz an opportunity to correct this impression. He should stress once more that all sanctions (including halting Nord Stream 2) are on the table for Germany. At the same time, Scholz should distance himself as clearly as possible from Gerhard Schröder in Washington, whose lobbying for Russian state enterprises and unconditional defense of Kremlin politics harmed not just the reputation of the Social Democratic Party, but Germany’s as well.

This also gives Scholz the credibility to remind his U.S. hosts that the costs of sanctions should be fairly distributed and that the United States is one of the largest importers of Russian oil, something which Washington has not yet to discussed.

The Current Crisis Is about Far More than Ukraine

It’s even more important that Scholz sends a clear signal that Germany will make additional military investments in deterring the Kremlin and defending NATO alliance partners on the eastern flank. The current crisis with Russia is about far more than Ukraine, as the Kremlin’s comprehensive catalog of demands makes clear. Eastern European NATO partners feel understandably threatened by this. Berlin must take it into account.

There will not be a strong Europe on the world stage, something which Scholz is striving for, if Germany’s Eastern European partners feel abandoned by Berlin. And Scholz’s project of a new Ostpolitik* can only work if Germany is prepared to provide additional investments in the security of its Eastern European partners.

The chancellor can thereby draw on Willy Brandt’s legacy of Ostpolitik. Contrary to what many amateur historians claim today, deterrence was for Brandt a prerequisite to détente. Under Brandt’s leadership, the defense budget experienced hitherto unseen growth rates. In 1973, the future Nobel Prize winner argued that “the freedom to participate in détente and balance is not given to us.” The defense budget “helps our peace work.” “The presence and combat strength of the Bundeswehr** must be maintained.”

Today, the German government’s formula of “dialogue and toughness” will only function the same way with regard to Russia if Germany also invests in toughening the defense capabilities of its NATO alliance partners. Germany cannot rely solely on the United States for this. We should not let ourselves be deceived by the 3,000 additional soldiers that President Biden is sending to Europe. In the medium-term, the United States must reduce its presence in Europe in order to concentrate on standing up to Beijing’s aspirations of hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. And this will occur even if we get lucky and Trumpism does not find a way back to power in 2024.

Solidarity with Washington against Coercive Economic Measures from Beijing

At the same time, Scholz should make concrete proposals for trans-Atlantic cooperation on China policy in Washington. Scholz laid the groundwork for this in a government statement. He spoke of the necessity of “aligning our China policy with the China that we actually encounter” and “taking up the competition globally.” The chancellor added, “Our most important partner in this is the United States.” Scholz can now fulfill this ambition by making concrete offers to cooperate in the fields of green technology, rare earth metals, semiconductors and global infrastructure (building on the European Global Gateway initiative).

Scholz would be well advised to seek solidarity with Washington against coercive economic measures from Beijing (as in the case of Lithuania). He should combine this with an indication that cooperation will be successful if the United States refrains from placing economic sanctions on democratic allies.

At the same time, Scholz should make it clear in Washington that German peace policy helps defend the status quo in the Taiwan Strait through nonmilitary deterrence of Beijing. With this clear agenda in Washington, Scholz can not only remove doubts regarding Germany’s reliability as an alliance partner, he can also make it clear that he is pursuing a policy as ambitious as that of his predecessor Merkel.

*Editor’s Note: Ostpolitik refers to the foreign policy of detente by Western European countries with reference to the former communist bloc.

**Editor’s Note: The Bundeswehr are the German armed forces.

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About Michael Stehle 85 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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