Joe Biden and the US’s Pivot to Europe
Faced with the Biden administration, Germany must finally come to terms with its geostrategic obligations and commitments.
December 16, 2020
When Joe Biden becomes the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021, there will be a marked contrast to his predecessor’s way to conduct U.S. diplomacy.
Mr. Biden will turn to his European allies to address pressing global issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and dealing with China and Russia, respectively. And he will look to Germany — and Europe — for more international engagement.
“Burden shifting” as the new normal
In particular, Joe Biden expects Europe to accept “burden-shifting” — a concept that is markedly different from “burden sharing,” i.e., the goal of spending 2% of GDP for defense — as had been pledged by NATO defense ministers at their Wales Summit in 2014, to be reached by 2024.
“Burden Shifting” will define the new normal in transatlantic relations. Quite independent of the question to what degree the United States is turning more attention to Asia, Europe over the past seven decades has matured enough and has become wealthy enough to accept new realities.
In practical terms, this means for Europeans to largely look after their continent and their wider neighborhood, also in defense terms. That is what “burden shifting” essentially refers to.
German speechifying alone isn’t enough
Former German President Joachim Gauck and former Ministers Ursula von der Leyen and Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged Germany’s international responsibility at the 2014 Munich Security Conference.
That declaration resulted in a German foreign policy “Review-2014” and the 2016 German “White Paper: Strategic Review and Way Ahead on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr.”
Six years later, Germany has increased somewhat its foreign and security policy commitments through participation in international military operations with the UN, EU and NATO — as well as by taking on the burden of establishing a new NATO logistics command.
Accepting burden shifting strengthens Europe
In the long run, burden shifting can strengthen the European continent to protect its interests and fight its own battles. To that end, more self-reliance — not strategic autonomy — is needed.
As German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stated in her proposed “New Deal” for Germany and the United States, Europeans must bring more to the partnership.
Europe has a choice to make. It cannot claim the mantle of independent global leadership and continue to rely on the United States for its security — including in its immediate neighborhood.
U.S. doubts over Europe’s commitment
Over time, U.S. policymakers will have to decide if they prefer a European Union that remains weak in a divided European continent but is closely aligned with U.S. interests (not least because it is more or less dependent on the U.S. security guarantee).
Conversely, a strong Europe will benefit Washington more than a divided and weak one, but U.S. policymakers are skeptical that Europe will indeed accept burden shifting with all the obligations this implies.
At the same time, it can’t be said that they are truly ready to deal with a Europe that is a more forceful and more autonomous partner, which implies that Europe will sometimes go against the United States’ favored policies.
Cultural differences and strategic standstill?
In part, these different lenses and thinking patterns are being reflected in an emerging transatlantic debate over foreign policy. On the surface, this debate concerns the importance of interests or values to reshape the transatlantic relationship.
Much closer to the truth and the strategic conundrum is that the United States is confronted with the charge of being power-obsessed (“machtbesessen”). Meanwhile, Europe has to contend with the reproach of being all too given to power-rejectionists (“machtablehnend”).
Germany caught in the middle
There are EU nations that have always had a more than mildly antagonistic relationship with the United States regarding geo-strategyic matters. This point mostly concerns France.
Germany, in contrast, for reasons of modern history, trading relationships and a lesser impulse to pursue an independent strategy, occupies a very different base than does France.
In practical terms, this presents a real fork in the road for Germany. The country can stick both with its past attitude and be happy about strategic debates moving into the shifting sands territory — which means they remain unresolved.
Or Germany can choose to provide strategic leadership in Europe. This German leadership would be its way to move the cause of Europe’s — for the time being, vastly overstated — “strategic autonomy” at least a little bit forward.
Germany as a proactive transatlantic force
Caught in the U.S.-French dance on military and strategic matters, a proactive Germany in this politico-cultural battle between Washington and Paris could actually claim to be helpful to both sides. It would thus act as a true transatlantic partner.
It would also mean a more reasonable Germany willing to overcome self-imposed obstacles that have blocked a more responsible leading role for the country in the past.
Change begins with acknowledging the hurdles
On the way to rebalancing the transatlantic relationship’s burdens, there are severe obstacles to increasing Germany’s leadership role in Europe. They are indeed both numerous and significant.
First off, there is a lack of a strategic culture in Germany. Second, there is a German historical burden of claiming a “Sonderweg,” a special path of going-it-alone to avoid dealing with actual conflicts that need resolution.
Obviously, part of the explanation for this lack of a strategic culture is an autocratic history rife with imperial rule, the Nazi dictatorship and the era of East German communism.
Strategic obscurity as a rational choice?
Third, there is the haze of incoherent/uncoordinated policy formulation. The German governmental practice of coalition governments actually foments this strategic obscurity.
This obscurity usually comes about because different political parties hold the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Both tap the constitutional right of independence (Ressortprinzip), artfully playing the political game to please their respective intra-party constituencies.
This obscuring practice not only avoids the creation of any sense of clarity — but such clarity is also, in fact, the opposite of the goal that underlies this process.
The SPD in its parallel universe
This disorientation can be seen in full glory at the current time where the SPD is shredding itself in an internal debate where some of its leaders try to outdo each other in fomenting strategic doubt about the United States at the very beginning when an outright “Philo-European” — i.e., Joe Biden — is entering this stage.
At best, this can be described as completely ignorant with regard to the dynamics of diplomacy, which requires to have at least a basic sense of timing.
Sadly, probably much closer to the truth is that the SPD is so unsure of its overall role in contemporary politics that it seems to come off its moorings and become a willing playmate for Putin’s nihilist European stratagems.
A nation wrapped in strategic silence
Thankfully, it can’t be said any longer that the Germans, as dutiful citizens, are opposed to actively holding public debates. Germans discuss plenty, and they discuss basically everything — often ad nauseam in order to avoid resolution.
Probably the only major exception to having public debates is that there is next to no public discussion about the goals, priorities and guiding principles of Germany’s foreign and security policy.
Biden will call Germany’s bluff
The odds are that the Biden administration will call Germany’s bluff in this regard. Friendly as it is disposed toward Europe and especially toward Germany, it will hold Berlin to account.
The Biden team will not let the Germans continue to fester in the juices of the Germans’ customary preference for maintaining strategic obscurity — and, ultimately, inaction.
The Greens as Biden’s German allies?
If one reads the foreign policy-related pronouncements by Green Party leaders such as Annalena Baerbock, what becomes quite evident is that case, indications are that the party that is likely going to be the junior partner in the next CDU-led coalition government come this time next year is very much in tune with Joe Biden.
After all, the incoming U.S. President has not minced any words on the autocratic leaders that rule Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Like the Greens, he does not appear to be an equivocator or mealy-mouthed politician.
That would be a most refreshing contrast to what the SPD has on offer on transatlantic matters.
That party’s strategic framework seems to suffer from serious distortions — such as a preference for an equidistant relationship to the United States and Russia, as well as an eternal preference for endless debates — using the frame of pacifism as a prop for a deep-seated level of geostrategic confusion.
Under those circumstances, Germans are well-advised to address the “burden shifting” frame by starting with reframing their national policy debate and accepting a leading role with its European partners.
If Berlin chooses to pursue this approach, the odds are that “the West” will overcome transatlantic and European disunity caused by such issues as sanctions against the North Stream 2 pipeline construction by aligning it with U.S. interests.
Joe Biden expects Europe to accept “burden-shifting” -- a concept that is markedly different from “burden sharing.”
“Burden shifting” means Europeans largely looking after their continent and wider neighborhood in defense terms.
Europe has a choice to make. It cannot claim “strategic autonomy” and the mantle of independent global leadership, while continuing to rely on the US for its security.
To date, the US is charged with being power-obsessed, while Europeans in many ways are power-rejectionists.
To help both Washington and Paris -- and thus act as a true transatlantic partner -- Germany must accept a more pro-active role for the country.
On foreign and security policy, Germany practices the art of obscurity -- to avoid any sense of clarity and, often, a real commitment.
The SPD in Germany is so unsure of its overall role that it seems to come off its moorings and act as a willing playmate for Putin’s nihilist European stratagems.
Today’s SPD increasingly prefers an equidistant relationship to the US and Russia. It uses the frame of pacifism as a prop for a deep-seated level of geostrategic confusion or indecision.
Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts.
J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and founding Henry Kissinger Professor at Bonn University. He is currently Senior Nonresident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.