Weighing payoffs and risks, nations must cut their losses when necessity knocks. Joe Biden just did by handing Germany a free pass on Nord Stream 2, the gas duct that has strained U.S.-Germany relations since Barack Obama. The last hundred miles underneath the Baltic Sea will at last be completed—no more U.S. depth charges and sanctions. Let billions of cubic feet of gas flow freely from Ust-Luga (Russia) to Greifswald (Germany). Berlin has won the bout on points.
Cynics could have predicted the outcome of this middleweight-heavyweight match. You don’t stop an $11–12 billion project on the last leg; not when you can tally the liability suits the Nord Stream consortium would have flung at Washington. The political bill loomed even larger, setting ally against ally just while No. 46 was desperately trying to reunite the Western world against two adversaries, China and Russia, at once. Given increasing U.S. demand for allies, Berlin just had to sit back and wait for Nord Stream 2 to drop into her lap.
Why? The United States needs to make nice to its friends when its foes are eager to eject No. 1 from the penthouse of global primacy. So, sidle up to the fourth party, Europe, which adds five hundred million people to the scales, as many soldiers as the United States, and the world’s second-largest GDP. A cold look across Europe reveals, as always, the centrality of Germany at the fulcrum of the balance. Britain is half out, and France is but a quondam team player who would rather be coach. So, go to Germany, the EU’s economic no. 1—rich, well governed, and predictable like a Black Forest cuckoo clock.
The hallmark of German policy—so much solidity-cum-stolidity—is precisely the problem of Biden’s project to refurbish his European alliance. The moment was right. Everybody from Iberia to the democratic heirs of the Reich was delirious with joy when Donald (“Pay Up or We Pull Out”) Trump went off to Mar-a-Lago—and none more so than Angela Merkel, who has seen four U.S. Presidents come and go in her sixteen years in office.
Except national interests don’t change as often as tenants in the White House. It wasn’t just Nord Stream 2 that stood between Berlin and Washington. The Russo-German energy entente has strained German-American amity for fifty years, starting with the grand bargain of the Seventies that would trade Soviet gas for German pipes and machinery.
Washington kept firing away from the sidelines, but Bonn had bigger geopolitical fish to fry. Having launched the New Ostpolitik to soften up a relentlessly hostile empire, West Germany launched a classical balancing stratagem. The triple rule was: “Bribe the Kremlin with badly needed resources,” “assure energy security,” and “stop riling the Russians.” The geostrategic logic was compelling. The United States is over there, and the USSR next door. Plus, it held the key to the walled-in East German part of the Fatherland, a Soviet satrapy. So, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to squeeze Leonid Brezhnev elsewhere. And so did Angela Merkel a generation later in the battle over Nord Stream 2.
Fast forward to savor the larger principle of German grand strategy. On the one hand, shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella; on the other, reach out to the Russians to reduce dependence on Uncle Sam. Take in this telling vignette: When Mrs. Merkel moved into the chancellor’s office in 2005, the photo op revealed a portrait of Russia’s Catherine the Great on her desk. Because she was a role model, a mighty woman who had made it? Because of Catherine von Anhalt-Zerbst’s German roots? Let’s, rather, invoke unsentimental continuity. Yes, Prussia-Germany and Russia had been at each other’s throats regularly, but Bismarck would lay down the overarching orthodoxy when he famously taught, “Never sever the [telegraph] wire to St. Petersburg.”
The point is geography, even as “warp speed” shrinks space and time. It counsels: Stay at the table, play footsie if you can at a reasonable risk, but don’t kick shins, let alone poke Czar Vladimir in the eye. This is why Merkel would never fall for grandstanding à la Emmanuel Macron. Plodding along on the chessboard, she defied Trump and Biden over Nord Stream 2 in a manner both civil and stony. And she won by seemingly conceding, which is the pinnacle of artful diplomacy.
The idea was to score by allowing Joe Biden to save face after so much American bluster in the Trump days. The costs to Berlin range between bearable and negligible, while the gains, now sanctified by U.S. approval, will make up for whatever had been lost during the mano-a-mano with the MAGA Man. Brilliantly stubborn diplomacy, thy name is Angela. With just a hint of irony, she told Biden, “Good friends can always disagree.”
Here is the asset side. Germany gets to keep Nord Stream 2. As a result, Russia’s biggest gas customer will turn into Europe’s gas hub, with roughly 60 percent of supplies running through the land between Rhine and Oder. Good for transit fees, good for a place in Putin’s graces.
Those pesky Ukrainians, who have occasionally shut off Russian exports, are losing their veto power. So will those ornery Poles, Slovaks, and Czechs, not to speak of the Austrian heirs of Habsburg who also host pipelines on their territory. All told, Moscow will have the upper hand over the Europeans in future negotiations.
On the strategic level, Merkel’s pipeline plays the same role as Bismarck’s telegraph. Don’t cut the line, keep Germany off the czar’s enemy list—especially while Putin is on a strategic roll against Eastern Europe’s flanks and center, while Europe remains unable to defend itself.
What will keep Putin at his best behavior? The promises he has apparently made are cheap. Why would he keep his pledges if he holds all the levers? Supposedly, Russia will keep the gas flowing through Ukraine for ten years; currently, the transit fees add $3 billion to Kyiv’s coffers, about 1.5 percent of its GDP. Germany has committed to laying down the law if Moscow turns nasty. It would organize EU-wide sanctions. Yet Putin’s broken promises on Ukraine litter the land. Naturally, Biden had wanted more than declarations of noble intent: a “kill switch” that would cut off Russian gas exports to the West if Moscow were to threaten the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Such an automatic mechanism would act as a real deterrent.
“Nein,” said Merkel’s minions, disingenuously adding that the Nord Stream company was headquartered in neutral Switzerland. How could we punish those friendly Swiss? So fear not, Mr. Putin, Berlin will spare you the rod. Instead, it is more sugarcoating for Ukraine. Germany generously wants to integrate Ukraine’s energy sector into the European grid to reduce Kyiv’s vulnerability. It will also shell out €150 million for the “ecological modernization” of the Ukrainian system. The problem is the obvious one between easy-to-utter intentions and costly enforcement. Why would Germany cut its nose to spite Putin’s face? They are in this deal together.
All nations prioritize their own raisons d’état; so, none is eager to sacrifice for Ukraine et al. And Putin knows it. As Thucydides preached millennia ago, the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must. That is the real moral of this tale of molecules and calories. Great powers dispose, smaller ones bear the consequences. Berlin gets Washington off its back and scores in Moscow, Biden hauls in an estranged German ally, and Putin tightens his grip on hapless Ukraine while making some extra billions to finance his expansionist ambitions. Not bad for a few months’ work—except for Ukraine plus Poland, another transit country in the sights of the Kremlin.
The games nations play hold a larger moral still. Globally, President Biden evidently hopes to recruit Europe against Russia and China. Hence, he yielded to Germany because it is the EU’s no 1. It is a classical chessboard gambit. Yet Europe will not rally around the flag. Nor can it. The twenty-seven do not a strategic player make, nor do they wish to be caught in “entangling alliances” against the revisionists in Beijing and Moscow. The strategic price (think rearmament) and the economic one (think China trade) are too high.
But let us be grateful for small things, especially the warming political climate over the Atlantic. The tone makes the music, as the French say, and after those dreary days with Trump, it will be easier to listen to one another. Ever so slowly, the music is also turning against Messrs. Xi and Putin—even in Germany, where “count me out” clad in lofty principle was the best predictor of the country’s diplomacy.
A feel-good foreign policy makes for better Western bedfellows, not for strategic brotherhood—that is the bottom line. Nor will Frau Merkel reward Mr. Biden for his cave-in. That’s not what nations do. They pocket their winnings and proceed to another game of high-stakes poker. But let’s not carp too much. Joe Biden had a bad hand at the Nord Stream 2 table, and he wisely chose to fold. Why expend more chips on a losing game?
There is no dishonor in accommodating allies. There is, though, in delivering a free gift like Nord Stream 2 to Vladimir Putin. It whets his appetite and feeds his opportunism. In Beijing, they will be writing memos for Mr. Xi: This is how Putin got the better of Biden. Let’s call Berlin next.
The highest praise must go to the chancellor, who will bow out in the fall. They should be teaching the Nord Stream Case in the world’s diplomatic academies. No bluster, no threats. Just a sharp eye for chinks, attentive patience, and a masterly command of jiu-jitsu. Don’t match your rival muscle for muscle. Identify the gaps in his defense, then pounce and throw him off balance by leveraging his superior weight against him.
Never brag. Just ask, “Who, me?”, and discreetly stash the cash. That’s not the American way, nor yesterday’s German way, when kaisers and fuhrers relied on brute force. Merkel has done it her way. That’s how she stayed on top for sixteen long years.
Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit and on the editorial board of American Purpose. A distinguished visiting fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, he teaches international politics as well as political theory at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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