Scholz’s Washington Visit Must Reaffirm the Germany–US Partnership

February 04, 2022
5 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
When President Joe Biden welcomes Olaf Scholz to the White House on February 7, there will be many questions for Germany’s new chancellor about the policies of his government toward Ukraine and Russia. They will not be easy to answer.

Scholz is aware that Germany has been the subject of speculation and criticism about its reliability in responding to President Vladimir Putin’s threats toward Ukraine due to its dependence on Russian gas and oil as well as its support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Berlin’s refusal to provide weapons to Kyiv, while offering hospital supplies and army helmets, has only added to the criticism. Some voices in Washington, including many in Congress, argue that Germany is an unreliable partner and the weakest link in NATO in dealing with Putin.

Germany’s history with Russia, particularly the legacy of the Second World War, is often presented as a justification for sustaining close ties with Moscow. Up until recently, Scholz argued that Nord Stream 2 should not be mixed in with the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. But he is coming to Washington after publicly stating that Germany is committed to implementing sanctions against Moscow if the latter takes steps to use energy as a weapon or attacks Ukraine. That is understood to include threats to finally cancel the pipeline project.

Scholz will be under pressure to clarify his case for implementing and sustaining sanctions.

Scholz will be under pressure to clarify his case for implementing and sustaining sanctions. Clearly stating Germany’s position in Washington will also be seen as a firm alignment with Biden, who is facing strong pressure in Congress to impose more sanctions on German companies connected to Nord Stream 2. A Russian invasion of Ukraine will strengthen calls for not only more sanctions but also military aid from Germany.

Kosovo, Afghanistan, Ukraine?

After less than two months in office, this is a pivotal moment for Scholz and his coalition government. It echoes a similar moment in 1999 when Germany was dealing with the crisis in Kosovo. At that time, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was instrumental in framing the choices Berlin faced. In confronting those who argued that history taught that Germany should not engage in that conflict, under the slogan “Never again war,” he countered with “Never again Auschwitz.” Two years later, Germany joined the United States in Afghanistan under the slogan of “unlimited solidarity.” Its troops remained there for the next 20 years. In both cases, Germany opted to side with the United States and NATO.

In contrast, a sharp conflict emerged between Germany and the United States over the Iraq war in 2003 when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder refused to support the US-led invasion, a message he used to secure a win in close parliamentary elections that year. This left scars on the German–US relationship.

The current challenge involving Ukraine requires the recognition of a shared threat and the need to share resources to confront it. Scholz and Biden also share the challenge of sustaining domestic support for their decisions as their respective predecessors did in past crises. In both cases, they need the support of each other, particularly if the crisis escalates further. Additionally, Germany is struggling with self-imposed limits on steps it is willing to take, which remains a source of tension with the United States as well as within Europe.

Germany is confronting threats to the international order in which it has been able to successfully emerge over the past seven decades. Today it is faced with demonstrating its responsibility to protect that order in partnership with its allies. This requires a unified response from the coalition Scholz leads as well as close coordination with European Union partners and within NATO.

Germany should remember the burdens it shared with its partners for four decades during the Cold War, during which the divided country was the front line between thousands of troops and weapons. Scholz can refer to the dialogue and the deterrence that led his predecessors to achieve unification in 1990. Both strategies were necessary and were ultimately successful.

Germany today needs to affirm its commitment to sharing burdens and its determination to uphold the principles of democracy and freedom for Ukraine. That will require leadership from Scholz to persuade Germans about what is at stake. In his speech to the Bundestag on December 15, he stated that “any violation of [Ukrainian] territorial integrity will come with a high price.” What that price is may soon be revealed, and not only for Russia. Given the deep German–Russian economic ties and the concerns about energy supplies being part of sanctions, Germany will also be confronted with burdens. Arguments to make Nord Stream 2 operational to sustain energy supplies will have to be confronted with alternatives.

Dialogue and Deterrence

This is a moment when Germany’s preferences for dialogue must be matched by a capacity for credible deterrence. This challenge may be a long test for the country and its partners; but such a test was faced already by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was instrumental in leading European sanction responses to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. That same duty falls to Scholz now.

The message Scholz needs to deliver in Washington, but also to all Germany’s partners, should be clear: his country will not waver in this moment of crisis or seek a middle ground with Putin. Like the United States, Germany can seek to sustain a dialogue with Russia but it must be ready for consequences if this fails. The legacy of history should not prevent it from confronting Russia or from helping Ukraine defend itself. In fact, it raises an obligation to do so.

Germany can seek to sustain a dialogue with Russia but it must be ready for consequences if this fails.

The United States needs a coherent Europe to deal with Putin’s challenges and Germany is a vital partner in that effort. Scholz can contribute most to that role by unifying his government, and his Social Democratic Party, to forge a credible response with the tools Germany has at its disposal.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989, President George HW Bush delivered a message well before reunification was achieved. He congratulated Germany, saying: “You have inspired the world by forcefully promoting the principles of human rights, democracy and freedom. The United States and the Federal Republic have always been firm friends and allies, but today we share an added role: partners in leadership.” Germany should also remember the words Bush added to that recognition: “Of course leadership has a constant companion: responsibility. And our responsibility is to look ahead and grasp the promise of the future.”