President Biden and the US-German Special Relationship

“In the long run, the United States can only maintain its role as a global power through close cooperation with a stable, democratic, prosperous Europe capable of acting collectively. Similarly, Europe can only maintain and strengthen its collective ability when working with a transatlantic partner in place. Hence, devotion to European integration and transatlantic engagement will continue to be two sides of the same coin”.

“More Ambition, Please! Towards a New Agreement between Germany and the United States.”

Biden, Germany and hard multilateralism

January 28th, 2021.  A new German Marshall Fund report is out that shines a light on the future of the transatlantic relationship and the coming Biden Doctrine of hard or assertive multilateralism. Full of Hanoverian and Hanseatic common sense “More Ambition, Please! Towards a New Agreement between Germany and the United States.” calls for a revitalised US-German strategic partnership (during the Cold War the US-German relationship was always vital). Whilst German/European (I am never quite sure of the German distinction) ‘ambition’ is the headline of the report it is really about the re-forging of transatlantic cohesion in the wake of the Trump administration and in a changed post-pandemic world. At the core of the report is a very serious call by very senior Germans for Germany to do far more in defence of Europe, to become a more reliable partner of the United States, and to think and act strategically rather than ‘mercantilistically’.  The central message is that given the many challenges faced by both North Americans and Europeans across a spectrum of threats from Russia, China, Iran and terrorism such challenges can only be successfully faced together.  

Ironically, by offering a roadmap for Germany to do more in a revitalised transatlantic relationship the authors also highlight the vital importance to the US of militarily-capable European allies and the urgent need for Washington to again invest in multilateralism.  Germany rightly wants the Biden administration to see international institutions much as Germans do; as far more than necessary constraints on lesser powers who do not live in America’s shining city on the hill.  The report thus implies the need for both Americans and Europeans to converge on a new policy of hard, assertive multilateralism in which adherence to the norms and values of international regimes is also guaranteed by a sufficiency of hard military democratic power. The aim?  To put a firm brake on Chinese and Russian efforts to establish Machtpolitik as their preferred method for the conduct of twenty-first century international affairs.  

The strength of this report is that it rises above German parochialism to offer strategic perspective infused with ambition by establishing fundamental strategic realities Berlin must now grip. First, Germany must be at the fore in engaging together the coming strategic challenge of China which is still only in its infancy.  Second, Germany must help lead Europe’s collective defence effort to enable it to become far more efficient and effective in the post-pandemic economy to assure Allied defence and deterrence.  Third, during an emergency in which the US is engaged world-wide Europeans, with Germans to the fore, must assure their own defence. Indeed, as the report rightly states, whilst the US affords Europeans defence ‘reinsurance’, the insurance policy itself must be European. 

NATO: the Atlanticsphere and the Eurosphere

NATO? It must be transformed, not merely adapted built around two re-modelled ‘plug and play’ pillars that transcend the increasingly diluted boundary between member and partner, EU and NATO – the Atlanticsphere and theEurosphere. The Atlanticsphere would be organised around the US with Britain, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, the creed of which would be intelligence-gathering and maritime security in the North Atlantic.  The Atlanticsphere would be linked closely linked to Five Eyes, the intelligence-sharing community that involves America, Britain, Canada and Australia (ABCA) plus New Zealand, and increasingly and interestingly, Japan.  The Atlanticsphere would be centred on two power-projection navies – the United States Navy and the Royal Navy (yesterday one of Britain’s new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth became the fleet flagship).  Whilst focussed on operations in and around the North Atlantic, as its name suggests, it would also enjoy a strategic creed and culture that could enable it to operate far beyond. Britain?  In spite of current challenges London will increase its defence budget by some ten percent over the next four years with an increasingly powerful Royal Navy the main beneficiary. London’s message to Washington and other allies is thus clear: new US-EU, US-German strategic partnerships will be important but when it comes to another crisis crunch it will be good old Britain with its developing strategic raider force that will be the most able and capable. 

Biden’s ambitions for Germany will thus depend on the extent to which the Eurosphere offers the US partnership beyond words and transatlantic piety. The report is thankfully practical on this crucial issue.  Whilst the Eurospherewould necessarily be built on the Franco-German strategic partnership it would also be re-fashioned to de-conflict EU and NATO security and defence efforts.  Critically, whilst the report calls for European defence integration it does so from the perspective of a deep collective effort rather than the Nirvana of a common defence.  The report thus reflects a necessary balance between the need for a stronger Germany and Berlin’s perpetual and rightful angst over German power and its potential to destabilise Europe.  

Biden internationalism versus German mercantilism

However, President Biden and his foreign and security policy team should be under no illusions about the challenge of building such a special relationship with contemporary Germany and hold Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) has over Berlin’s foreign and security policy. The true test will be Germany’s position on the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, a project of such strategic implications that it could rapidly create a decoupling German-Russian mutual dependency. Indeed, in anticipation of a Biden push to impose more sanctions on Putin’s Russia Chancellor Merkel said recently, “We need to talk about whether we don’t have any more trade with Russia or what level of dependency is tolerable”.  

Armin Laschet, Chancellor Merkel’s chosen successor as leader of the CDU and possible future chancellor, emphasises the scale of the challenge.  Over recent years Laschet has revealed himself at best sceptical of both the US and the UK.  His public disparaging of criticism of Russia in the wake of the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the use of Novichok by the GRU in Salisbury in 2018, revealed a strongly pro-Russian position.  This may have something to do with there being some 1200 or so companies that trade with Russia in Laschet’s fiefdom of North-Rhine-Westphalia. Herr Laschet and his ilk might also suggest that Germany already has a special trading relationship with the US and needs little more. In that case, Germany also has a ‘special relationship’ with China. After all, every second VW that rolls off the production line is made in China.  Perhaps most worryingly, a November 2020 Pew poll revealed only one in ten Germans to have a positive view of the US. 

There is also an American flip side to all of this that Germans also need to better understand: with so much to do at home and with US forces stretched thin the world over the amount of political capital the Biden White House is willing to invest in a new US-German strategic partnership may be distinctly limited. In other words, like it or not Berlin could well soon have to pay the real price of leading Europe and make a choice between a French-led ‘autonomous’ European defence and a US-guaranteed European defence.  Clearly, for Berlin a return to pre-Trump transatlantic business as usual is really not an option. 

The Biden Doctrine and European strategic responsibility

The hard truth the report reveals is that Wandel durch Handel is simply not enough anymore.  For the transatlantic security relationship to remain more than some latter day Potemkin village American soldiers must see properly equipped German forces of scale alongside them ready and willing to fight the hard yards of Europe’s future defence.  Berlin is right to reject the idea of strategic autonomy being peddled by Paris, which smacks too much of some latent Gaullist obsession with the American presence in Europe. Rather, Germans must match the hard multilateralism of the Biden administration by promoting complementary European strategic responsibility with Germany (and France) to the fore. 

A US-German Special Relationship would in no way detract from the relationship that Britain, France or any other European power has with Washington, all of which are special in their own special ways.  Indeed, in spite of the usual coterie of detractors the Special Relationship between Britain and the US is secure in its uniqueness and will continue to be so. However, as the report states, the US and Germany now have a chance with a new Administration to create a strategic partnership built on the best of both strategic and political cultures. Carpe diem!

Biden and the US-German ‘special relationship’

There are, of course, some caveats Germans must recognise. First, attempts to bully Britain will fail. Britain remains a very important military power that will be critical to the future of the Alliance and the sharing of transatlantic burdens.  This is something many Europeans simply do not want to hear right now in the wake of Brexit.  Let me be clear; Brussels, Berlin and Paris cannot have their gateau and ‘mange’ it when it comes to Britain’s role in NATO.  If current EU efforts to make post-Brexit life as hard as possible for the British continues popular support for defending Europe will plummet and Britain will retreat further behind its nuclear shield. President Biden and his German allies need to realise that danger and bring Britain with them. The Atlanticsphere and the Eurosphere must complement each other, not become alternatives.  

Second, trust must be built by investing in legitimate power.  Indeed, the future of the transatlantic relationship will rest as it always has on power and trust.  There must be sufficient power to ensure the Alliance is credible in its core mission of defence and deterrence, and sufficient trust in each other to know that when the next inevitable crisis comes Americans and Europeans not only will stand together but can stand together with the necessary military and resilient civil capacity and capability to act together.    

Third, re-assert NATO’s true purpose by re-establishing a power strut at its core.  NATO’s duty is to stop a major war in and around Europe by proving the Alliance can fight one.  The Alliance has always been built around a core relationship to keep it aloft, a bit like the central wing strut on a plane. For the early part of its existence the Anglo-American relationship provided that strut because it was built on the experience of combined operations forged during World War Two.  Indeed, NATO emerged out of such experience. With France having excluded itself by the 1970s the Federal Republic of Germany provided much of the strut, at least on the European landmass.  Now, Germany is being again called upon but to act as a just such a strut of the Alliance. However, to do so Germans will have to confront something many would prefer not to – how to fight and win a war. 

More ambition needs more action

More Ambition, Please! Towards a New Agreement between Germany and the United States is an important German statement that would have been difficult for responsible Germans to write even a decade ago.  The rest of us? We will never forget your past, Germany. How could we, yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day.  The Shoah will never be forgotten. However, most of us are also prepared to trust modern, liberal, democratic and responsible Germany with our future as long as Germany is prepared to trust itself. As L.P. Hartley wrote in 1953, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”.

Julian Lindley-French