Don’t mention the war in Ukraine: Germany’s deteriorating image in Washington

America as a political community is losing faith in Germany. Even if the Biden administration is currently satisfied with a Germany that does the minimum, this is hardly a foundation on which to build a new leadership model for the European security order.

Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz (SPD) geht nach seinem Antrittsbesuch beim US-Präsidenten auf dem Flughafen in Washington die Gangway zum Airbus A340 der Luftwaffe hinauf. Scholz fliegt in der Nacht zurück nach Berlin.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) walks up the gangway to the Air Force Airbus A340 at Washington airport after his inaugural visit to the US President
Image by picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

There is a strange duality to Germany’s image in Washington. The Russia-Ukraine crisis dominates the foreign policy conversation. And, judging by the tone of that conversation, one might imagine that it is Germany that is about to invade Ukraine rather than Russia. As German Ambassador to the United States Emily Haber warned her government in a recent cable, Germany is increasingly seen in Washington as a pacificist free-rider on the US security order. For many in Congress, Germany’s leaders virtue-signal about climate change and democracy while its economy gobbles up ever more Russian gas and its politicians take ever more Russian coin. This is the kind of nasty intra-allied enmity that is usually reserved for the French. The congressional cafeteria may be one dispute away from serving ‘freedom frankfurters’.

Yet, within the bowels of the Biden administration, there appears to be less discontent with Germany. In numerous interviews with US government officials in Washington last week, these authors consistently heard that US officials were not worried about the German position on Ukraine. It is perhaps the soft bigotry of low expectations, but Biden administration staff claim to be content with the support and coordination that they have received from Berlin. They seem confident that, in the event of another Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany will be with them. They seem certain that Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany that has roiled US-German relations in the last couple of years, will not survive blatant Russian escalation. If it comes to all-out war, they believe, Germany will cancel the project.

The congressional cafeteria may be one dispute away from serving ‘freedom frankfurters’

The source of this contrast is perhaps German politicians’ tendency to play a double game and to say different things in private and in public. Of course, most politicians send different messages in public and in private, but German public messaging is particularly constrained when it comes to hard power, especially all things military. German leaders’ deep reluctance to publicly threaten Russia with deterrence measures can be explained by the fact that Germany, as a society, really wants to avoid mentioning or imagining war – in Ukraine or anywhere else.

For example, during a press conference with President Joe Biden, Chancellor Olaf Scholz avoided the issue of whether Germany would send arms to Ukraine. He also refused to explicitly echo the US president’s statement that Nord Stream 2 will come to an end if Russia invades Ukraine. Yet Scholz seems to have sent a different message at a private dinner with a bipartisan Senate delegation. After the dinner, Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez expressed strong confidence in Germany’s readiness to implement the full package of economic and energy sanctions on Russia.

So, while Germany has taken a low-key approach to the crisis in public, it seems to have privately reassured the US that it is ready to bear the painful consequences of a strong Russia sanctions package, the cost of which is significantly higher for Germany than for the US.

Leadership talk

But, in the longer term, Germans’ refusal to publicly confront the hard realities of geopolitics carries a cost. The essence of the problem is that the US wants to get out of the business of upholding the European security order – indeed, it needs to do so, given how competition with China makes increasing demands on its resources. To achieve this responsibly and sustainably, the US needs to cede leadership on European security to some responsible party.

Before the Trump administration, US officials always assumed that Germany could take on this role. The country is, after all, the largest, richest, and most powerful EU member state. It sits at the centre of most European security debates, and it is broadly trusted by its allies, despite its troubled history. At times, Germany seemed willing to assume greater leadership of Europe. This could be seen in, for example, its efforts to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and to lead on the EU sanctions package that came in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. US officials have long encouraged such efforts because they know they need Germany to step up.

But, increasingly, Germany’s double game means that US foreign policy professionals believe the country will never cross that threshold. German politicians seem deeply afraid of voters at home and often ignore geopolitical reality for the sake of pandering to the public’s post-modern fantasies about the nature of power. For instance, by hastily terminating what was seen outside Germany as a perfectly safe nuclear energy system, former chancellor Angela Merkel responded to public fears about the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima but increased Germany’s dependence on Russian energy. Berlin’s continued refusal to strengthen its defence capabilities and act as a military power caters to a semi-pacificist public but looks absurd in the face of Russian military aggression not far from Germany’s borders.

These types of choices now weigh on Germany’s reputation in Washington. Under the Trump administration, a new image of Germany as a perennially irresponsible country that takes advantage of the US emerged. Trump, arguably, did not have a problem with Europe – he had a problem with Germany. He saw it as a country that had grown rich by exporting high-end products to the US while Americans paid to protect it. For many in Washington, Germany’s persistent failure to meet its 2014 commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence seems to show that Trump had a point. This image has now taken hold in large segments of Washington foreign policy establishment – primarily, but not only, in the Republican Party.

This new, Trumpian image of Germany sets the stage for Washington’s furious reaction to Berlin’s quiet approach to Ukraine. America as a political community is losing faith in Germany as a power player. Even if the Biden administration is currently satisfied with a Germany that just does the minimum, this is hardly a foundation on which to build a new leadership model for the European security order. A future Republican administration would likely intensify Trump’s approach to punishing Germany, leading to more desperate cables from harried German ambassadors. Under any Republican president, Germany’s values-driven, semi-pacifist foreign policy will prove a massive liability in its relations with the US, being completely at odds with the Republican Party mantra of anti-weakness and anti-wokeness. Ultimately, if the US cannot find a responsible way to reduce its commitment to Europe, it will probably find an irresponsible one. The current Russia-Ukraine conflict is perhaps the last major European security crisis in which the US will lead the response. Now, it seems as if no one will lead the next one. The new German government should not take solace in the soft bigotry of low expectations. Instead, it should rise to the challenge. Germany urgently needs to show the US and its other allies that it is not afraid to mention that war – and that it can become a responsible leader in Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow
Research Director
Director, US Programme

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