On February 7, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden. During the visit, the United States and Germany presented a united front in the face of a Russian troop buildup along the border with Ukraine. That is, until the debate turned to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Nord Stream 2 Will Be No More…
When taking questions from the press, Biden emphatically stated that Nord Stream 2 – an $11 billion natural gas pipeline that connects Russia and Germany and bypasses several other countries – would be ditched if Russia were to invade Ukraine. “If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, there will be no longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it,” Biden avowed. The pipeline has been a major headache for Biden’s foreign policy, indicating an area of disagreement in the transatlantic relationship at a time when the Biden administration is working to shore up its alliances and partnerships after four years of abuse and neglect during the Trump years.
Or Will It?
Chancellor Scholz, however, was less explicit on the pipeline’s future, instead opting for an oft repeated response more aligned with his preferred strategic ambiguity. He reiterated Biden’s point on unity, reaffirming that Germany was “absolutely united” with the United States and its NATO allies. He continued, “And we will not be taking different steps.” At the same time, there is speculation on Germany’s official stance on Nord Stream 2, as it only recently offered a vague commitment to that all options – including the pipeline – were on the table. While the two leaders swear that they are on the same page about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, discrepancies in U.S. and German public messaging abound.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been a thorn in the side of American foreign policy for years. Both the Obama and Trump administrations opposed the pipeline. The Biden administration came into office also in opposition, calling the pipeline a threat to European energy security with a fear that Europe’ reliance on Russian gas would give the Kremlin political leverage. Yet, Biden made one judgement in error that his predecessors did not – he waived sanctions on a company that build the pipeline in favor of avoiding a preserving its ties with its German ally. Now, the pipeline remains, as the Economist observed in December, a “point of friction in otherwise friendly ties.”
In Private, It’s a Different Story
The discrepancy between American and German public messaging, though, may not be as pronounced as is seen in the press. Interestingly, as the Politico’s NatSec Daily reported, Germany officials have privately told American counterparts the pipeline will not go forward should Russia invade Ukraine. Beyond that, top senators heard a bit of a different story at a dinner at the German embassy on Monday night than what has been reported. The German chancellor assured the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, that Germany has no plans to “serve as a bridge” between the United States and Russia. Additionally, Senator Jim Risch, the Ranking Member of the Committee, reported that Scholz noted his public statements were an attempt to avoid action or reaction from Moscow. The senators walked away from the dinner mostly confident that Germany and the United States are on the same page. It looks as though the Biden administration walked away equally as confident. As one U.S. official commented, “There is no daylight between our governments.”
A Completely Reliable Ally
The Scholz visit comes at a critical juncture in U.S.-German relations. Just last week, a leaked cable from the German ambassador in Washington warned of a strain in relations, surmising that Washington regarded Germany as an “unreliable partner.” Moreover, Germany appears out of step with its NATO allies on the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. Scholz faces criticism at home and abroad for his reluctance in coming to Ukraine’s aid.. This reluctance has manifested in Scholz’s muted response on severe economic sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion, particularly the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the German government’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine in recent weeks, further solidifying frustration with the German government for not being active enough in the crisis. The visit served as a means to prove Germany is a strong ally and to reiterate a unified response should Russia invade Ukraine.
During the visit – Scholz’s first to Washington since assuming the chancellorship in December – Biden dismissed discussion of Germany unreliability. “Germany is completely reliable, completely, totally, thoroughly reliable,” he stated during the press conference. He continued, “I have no doubt about Germany at all.” During the press conference, a journalist suggested that if Germany were to publicly state its agreement with the U.S. on abandoning the pipeline if an invasion were to occur, it might go a long way to restoring trust with the Americans. Biden jumped in immediately: “There’s no reason to win back trust. He has the complete trust of the United States.” Unquestionably, Germany remains one of the United States’ closest allies in Europe and across the world, a relationship that Biden is key to the Biden administration’s foreign policy.