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Transatlantic Challenges in the Face of Russian Sabre-Rattling

by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 37/2022 from Feb 09, 2022

Watching Germany’s Chancellor Scholz on his debut at the White House on 07 Feb, Principal Investigator Jessica Gienow-Hecht wonders why the Russo-Ukrainian border conflict is causing so much turmoil in transatlantic relations. With a view to the history of liberal democracies' allyship, she concludes: It’s a division of labour in the liberal script, stupid!


Image Credit: Photo by Ludomił Sawicki on Unsplash

The conflict along the Russian-Ukrainian border is a litmus test marking a new era in German-American and in transatlantic relations at large. A new and younger government in Berlin (born after 1970, on average) may not differ as much in deeds but in words when it comes to foreign policy. With Olaf Scholz and his team shuttling back and forth between Berlin, Moscow, Washington, and other conference sites, the question is: What is the meaning of the Russo-Ukrainian border conflict for the transatlantic community of values, notably NATO?

Poor Marks for Germany's Allied Democratic Solidarity

U.S. media have recently been quite critical of Germany’s commitment to the defense of the liberal order. Take the Wall Street Journal’s “Is Germany a Reliable American Ally? Nein.” The author scolds the German government’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine, to bar Britain and U.S. weapons carriers to Ukraine from transiting German airspace, and also ventures into a long litany of complaints ranging from Germany’s Nord Stream 2 deal to the nation’s closing of nuclear plants while increasing dependence on Russian natural gas. Chancellor Scholz’ predecessor, too, receives heavy flack: Merkel gets low marks for her rush to conclude a EU trade deal with China before Biden took office, and to privilege exports to China over China's human rights record on Uyghurs and Hong Kong. Other misgivings regard Germany’s lack of support for Lithuania in the midst of a trade war with China for permitting the opening of a “Representative Office” as well as the government’s meek response to China’s conversion of the South China Sea into “its own private swimming pool.” A lone Annalena Baerbock appears to be a superior “voice in the cabinet wilderness;” she receives high marks for her opposition to the planned pipeline. Still, for Germany, the author concludes, “cheap gas, car exports to China and keeping Mr. Putin calm seem to be more important than allied democratic solidarity.”

Conflict Resolution Depends on Perspective

The problem with any question of reliability is that it depends on who you ask and what your criteria are. Steeped in twenty-century visions of a world order, much of the ruling elite in Washington still defines reliability with “going along” – a tenure seriously questioned latest since Joschka Fischer’s famous 2003 retort “Excuse Me, I am not convinced.” To the U.S. leadership, the conflict along the Russian-Ukrainian border symbolizes a global hegemonic confrontation, ranging from Asia (with China eyeing Russia with suspicion) to Latin America (where Putin is contemplating the stationing of medium-range weapons). To German policymakers, in contrast, the conflict is supra-regional but it is, after all, a political conflict in Europe and very close to the domestic threshold. Putin’s power is declining, many observers believe, and needs a show of fists to rebrand the country as a proud--read: aggressive and expansionist—nation, one that other countries take seriously and fear.

Thus, German-American relations face multiple challenges, above all the fact that no one is happy with the other party’s vision of how best to deal with contestations of the liberal script. When Mr. Scholz goes to Washington, his hosts expect him to explain how one can stand by Ukraine and NATO without military display. Scholz, in turn, needs to keep an eye on his party (no friend of a collision course with Moscow), his traffic lights coalition and a majority of the German electorate (who do not wish to see the Federal Republic delivering weapons to Ukraine).

One With Military Power, One With Political Attractiveness

So, what is the point of the partnership in the context of the liberal order? The point is that neither one of the two partners can do without the other and they both know it. There is no doubt that militarily, the United States is in the driver’s seat: European contributions to NATO fall short of U.S. American expectations and investment. Many European nations – above all Germany – feel ambivalent about military expenditure, and for good reasons. Generations of young and older Europeans perished in two world wars. Accordingly, European security depends, to a large extent, on U.S. military engagement. And as long as this is the case, Europe will remain an object rather than a subject of international security policy and strategy.

Politically, however, the situation looks different. High-scale discrimination, frequent instances of suppression of the first amendment, the curtailment of civil rights, above all the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012 (which legalizes the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens on the suspicion of an association with terrorism) along with numerous interventions in favor of illiberal regimes have cast doubt on the question, whether the United States still qualifies as a liberal democracy. Europe, above all Western Europe, in turn, has scored high internationally when it comes to dialog, mediation, de-escalation and, also, as a haven for liberal values, human rights, and the rule of law. For all its regional authoritarianism, right-wing populism and discriminatory practices, the emerging European brand is one accentuating liberal values and rights, flanked by institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That brand is highly attractive to tourists, investors, migrants and equally marketable in the private sector [1].

Hence, one way to look at the current crisis is to see it as a division of labor. While European leaders struggle to uphold their version of a liberal order and the rule of law, studiously overlooking external challenges, the U.S. is there to defend it while incurring serious political compromise domestically and with illiberal regimes elsewhere in the world. That division of labor was never planned, and it may not last forever.

[1] “Brand EU, The European Union,” http://www.brandeu.eu.

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, member of the Research Unit "Borders", Co-Coordinator of the Research Project “Gender, Borders, Memory” and Professor of International History at Freie Universität Berlin.