Don’t call it a farewell tour. But also don’t ask any hard questions about Russia or China.
Angela Merkel came to Washington this week — with a pit stop in Baltimore to pick up an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University — as the undisputed political queen of Europe, and to firm up what she called the “framework conditions” for democracy.
Merkel stuck to her comfort zone of stabilizing, general talk. “Democratic institutions have to be nurtured,” she said accepting her Doctor of Humane Letters. “If these institutions are under permanent attack and put into question, democracy will not work.”
For 36 years, Merkel lived under the Soviet-aligned East German regime, and over 16 years as Chancellor of Germany, she attended more than 100 summits, weathered four U.S. presidents, beat a global financial crisis, opened her country’s doors to more than a million refugees in the summer of 2015, and survived Brexit.
If there’s a Merkel Doctrine, it’s based on survival: keep standing and compromising, because the alternative is worse.
Via their deep, shared belief in democracy, diplomacy and international solutions to great political challenges, President Joe Biden and Merkel are instinctive partners.
“She’s a great friend, a personal friend, and a friend of the United States,” Biden said as Merkel arrived in the Oval Office on Thursday for a bilateral meeting that lasted two hours. “She knows the Oval Office as well as I do,” he added later at a joint press conference.
White House officials speak about Merkel with reverence — the sort of florid praise reserved for an icon who is the longest-serving leader in NATO, the G-7 and the EU. Merkel first joined the German cabinet in 1991, with the reunification of Germany, a decade before Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when some of his top foreign policy advisers were still in middle school.
Speaking at her final White House press conference before leaving office Sept. 26, Merkel acknowledged that her usual survival strategy would not be enough for the transatlantic alliance to succeed in the future.
“Simply committing to these values is certainly not sufficient,” she said, just minutes after committing to a so-called “Washington Declaration” on opposing democratic backsliding, and urging joint efforts on issues, including climate change. “We need to translate these values into practical policies,” Merkel said.
Left unsaid: it will be up to her successor to create those solutions.
Asked when he would be visiting Germany, Biden replied “soon, I hope.” Biden’s next planned trip to Europe will be for the G-20 leaders summit in Rome in October. There, he’s likely to be meet with Armin Laschet, from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, who is favored to replace her as Chancellor. Or perhaps Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate took her party to the top of national polls briefly in May.
Merkel inherited a frigid U.S.-German relationship in 2005 from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. After a German love affair with President Barack Obama — sealed when he spoke before a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Berlin while still a candidate — the relationship hit new post-war lows from 2017, as President Donald Trump accused Germany of free-riding off the U.S. military and disrupted countless summits where Merkel previously held court.
While U.S.-German relations have returned to a steady state in 2021, there’s significant disagreement in the nuts and bolts of policy.
There’s broad agreement that the two countries should aim for strong democratic institutions, net-zero carbon emissions, an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, and joint policies on Russia and China — but no plan on how to get there.
On Thursday, Merkel didn’t get the answer she wanted on even her most fundamental question: would the Biden administration lift the travel ban on Europeans entering the United States in place since March 2020? In fact, she didn’t get any answer at all. Biden told reporters he’d deliver an answer “in coming days.”
In the same vein, Biden didn’t get the answer he wanted on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline he opposes between Russia and Germany.
Merkel has doggedly supported construction of the pipeline over strong opposition from both Washington and Brussels, but left open the option of sanctions against Russia if it acts against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or stops selling gas via Ukraine’s pipelines. “Our idea is and remains that Ukraine remain a transit country for natural gas, and Ukraine retains the right to territorial integrity,” Merkel told reporters.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) led calls by Republicans on Thursday for Biden to step up pressure on Merkel, given the pipeline is set to open as soon as August. Biden in May pulled back from imposing sanctions on the company constructing the pipeline.
A senior administration official defended the move Wednesday as giving “diplomatic space” for Washington and Berlin to minimize the pipeline’s negative impacts. Running under the Baltic Sea, the pipeline bypasses Ukraine, which depends on fees from Russian gas transiting across its territory to fund its defense and other public services.
Rubio said in a letter to Biden that his administration’s decision to waive sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG, the company constructing the pipeline, “will only endanger our democratic allies in East and Central Europe and embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin in his aggression,” and insisted there is bipartisan support in Congress for preventing the pipeline’s completion.
Germany has its own misgivings about U.S. policy. After years of undershooting a shared NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, two recent U.S. moves have allowed Germany to put Washington on the backfoot in defense discussions.
First, Trump announced in late 2020 that the U.S. would pull out 12,000 troops stationed in Germany — a decision that Biden later reversed. Then in April, Biden announced full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, without first consulting with Berlin, which had the second-biggest foreign military presence in the country.
On China, Merkel pushed for an EU-China investment agreement that was signed just weeks before Biden’s inauguration, and refused to block Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G mobile networks. Her best offer Thursday: “wherever human rights are not guaranteed, we will make our voices heard.”
Climate change and Covid-19 were the other recurring themes of Merkel’s visit, and she brought her scientific training to the discussions.
At Johns Hopkins University, Merkel urged her audience to “remain vigilant” against Covid-19 despite the pandemic “wearing us down.”
Describing climate change as “the challenge of our times,” Merkel directly linked climate change to the “dramatic increase in unusual weather”— including recent wildfires and heat waves in the U.S. and flooding in Germany. She proudly pointed out Germany’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, under the umbrella of the European Union’s carbon market, the world’s biggest.
In the absence of binding federal U.S. climate targets or a carbon market, Merkel suggested American innovation would be critical in tackling climate change, predicting “a profound transformation for the way we live, which doesn’t work without innovation.”
But Merkel admitted she may struggle with her own upcoming profound transformation: to private citizen.
Asked by Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, about her plans for life after office, Merkel said: “I don’t know. I’m so used to what I do now. I’m sort of afraid no one will want to see me anymore.”
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