Biden and Merkel reaffirm U.S.-German cooperation as her time on Europe’s center stage wanes
President Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to broaden cooperation between their countries in meetings at the White House on Thursday, in what will likely be the final visit of one of America’s foremost allies before she leaves the post she’s held for 16 years, through four U.S. presidencies.
The two leaders, whose countries are pillars of the transatlantic alliance, discussed a range of issues where they have common ground: climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and security challenges in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and eastern Europe.
But they also tried to bridge two gaps between them, involving Russia’s nearly complete Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Germany, which the United States opposed, and the administration’s desire for Germany to take a tougher stance toward China, its largest trading partner.
Biden called Merkel “a great friend, a personal friend and a friend of the United States” in comments to reporters as the two leaders began their meeting. He heaped more praise on her at a news conference later, thanking her for “strong, principled leadership” and being “a stalwart champion of the transatlantic alliance.”
Merkel, whose relations with former President Trump were notably tense, said at the outset, “I am very much looking forward to deepening the relationship again.” Later she twice described the meetings with Biden as “very friendly” and told reporters the two nations “share the same values” and are equally determined to tackle international problems “at a crucial moment.”
The chancellor began her day at a working breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, and near its end joined Biden in signing a formal declaration for future cooperation on the array of global challenges. They capped the visit with a ceremonial dinner that included officials from both countries.
Among the Americans was a bipartisan group of invitees including two former secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell, Congress’ two top Republicans — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield — and Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor.
Biden, responding to several questions at the news conference that were unrelated to U.S.-German relations, said he was not considering sending military troops to Haiti amid the unrest following the assassination of its president; called Cuba, which has been engulfed by protests over food and medicine shortages, “a failed state”; and expressed guarded confidence that he would achieve his agenda in Congress for infrastructure and social spending.
The looming departure of Merkel, Europe’s longest-serving and most important leader, could complicate Biden’s efforts to renew multilateral relations with allies after their tensions with Trump, and to solidify the alliance as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese aggression. Merkel is expected to leave the chancellorship after German elections in September.
“She’s always infuriated her peers with her ambiguities, but in truth she was actually very predictable,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Germany expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Merkel’s departure and replacement by a less experienced successor, she continued, “introduces an element of uncertainty at a time when allies would like to have more certainty in the capital of Europe’s anchor economy.”
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On the issues that divided Biden and Merkel, he could be helped by the fact that German public opinion has turned against China and the Nord Stream II pipeline.
The pipeline, which bypasses the key gas route through Ukraine to connect Russia and Germany directly, could be completed by August but has become less popular given Germans’ concerns about the risk from Russia to Ukraine’s security. Also, German intelligence officials have issued dire warnings about Russian and Chinese meddling in the country’s upcoming elections “at levels not seen since the Cold War.”
Merkel’s reluctance to confront China “has alarmed policymakers in Germany,” Stelzenmüller said. “Managing China’s rise will require using our considerable trade, technological and regulatory leverage to delineate clearer red lines. That is where Merkel has been overtaken by shifts in expert and also public opinion.”
At the news conference, Merkel affirmed Biden’s positions on China related to fair trade, human rights and the territorial sovereignty of Hong Kong, stating that there is “a common understanding that China, in many areas, is our competitor.” She added, “How we deal with China ought to rest — and does rest — on our shared values.”
Merkel reaffirmed her support for an infrastructure bank, a Biden proposal to have the world’s largest democracies offer financing to developing countries as a more transparent and energy-efficient alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Biden and Blinken toured Europe to restore alliances damaged by Trump, but did they make progress on a united front against China?
On Nord Stream II, the State Department last spring eased off the threat of sanctions over the project, partly because the pipeline’s imminent completion rendered it a moot point. But Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans have held up Senate confirmation of Biden’s nominee to head the CIA until the administration imposes sanctions against companies helping Russia’s state energy company on the pipeline.
Biden said imposing sanctions on a nearly completed project “didn’t make a lot of sense.” He did secure a pledge from Merkel to counter Russia should it use the pipeline to threaten Ukraine.
“Our idea is and remains that Ukraine remains a transit country for natural gas, and that Ukraine has a right to territorial sovereignty,” Merkel said. “We will be actively acting should Russia not respect this right.”
She did not elaborate on what that action might be. Biden said both countries would look for “practical measures” they could take in such a scenario.
Despite pressure from Republicans in Congress, Biden had appeared eager to find a middle ground on the pipeline dispute, said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm in New York. “He does not want to have problems with the Russians while he’s focusing on China, and he also wants to be seen as more aligned with the Europeans.”
Biden, who has met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as well as Merkel, has invited Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House for a meeting this summer, though no date has been set.
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