Germany's 'passive leadership' in the Ukraine crisis

Li Jiayao
2023-03-07 08:42:41

People gather during a demonstation at Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate, calling for peace negotiations with Russia in the Ukraine war, in Germany, February 25, 2023. /CFP

By Liu Lirong

Editor's note: Liu Lirong is an associate professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University. 

On March 2-4, 2023, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Washington D.C. and held talks with U.S. President Joe Biden. They discussed how to coordinate positions between Germany and the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis as the main topic. Apparently, Germany-U.S. relations are facing a crisis of confidence. Unlike the inaugural visit in February 2022, Scholz's state visit was not accompanied by journalists and business delegations, nor was a press conference was held as usual. Scholz chose to meet with Biden alone to avoid public discussions on controversial issues.

As one of the most important pillars of German foreign policy, the transatlantic partnership was strengthened amid the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Nonetheless, Berlin and Washington still harbor steep divides on many issues. The U.S. has expressed concerns over Germany's hesitancy over the past year with imposing economic sanctions on Russia and providing arms aid to Kyiv. Germany-U.S. relations have recently seen renewed friction over the supply of combat tanks to Ukraine. Washington hopes that Berlin will take the leadership in providing combat tanks to Ukraine, while Germany insists on coordinating actions with the United States.

Under the principle, "America First", Germany is regarded as a competitor to the U.S. in many economic fields. The biggest difference between Berlin and Washington currently lies in Biden's "Inflation Reduction Act." In Europe, the legislation is considered to be another version of Trump's "America First" economic policy, and its protectionist provisions have been rebuked by EU countries. The legislation is connected to the reindustrialization and employment rate increase in the U.S., which is a crucial platform to Biden's re-election bid. Brussels is worried that European companies will be at a competitive disadvantage or forced to relocate manufacturing to the U.S. As a major manufacturing and exporting nation, Germany would be severely impacted. If the differences cannot be resolved, a new trade conflict will ensue between the U.S. and EU.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., the U.S., March 3, 2023. /CFP

Additionally, Germany passively assumes a leading role over aiding Ukraine. Biden praised Scholz for his leadership in the Ukraine crisis. Scholz also pledged to provide deeper military support to Kyiv. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Scholz offered to take a leadership role in the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Accordingly, Germany has taken another crucial step to intervene in the Russia-Ukraine dispute. Prior to this, the United States had hoped that Berlin would play a greater leadership role on arms aid, but Scholz had acted cautiously and insisted on coordinating actions with its allies.

Breaking the forbidden zone of exporting weapons to war-torn areas is a major turning point in Germany's security policy since Scholz had assumed office. Over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Berlin had initially adhered to a red line that is to help the warring parties create move towards peaceful negotiations, in order to avoid an escalation of the conflict. Nonetheless, as the war has spread, Germany, under the pressure of its allies, had to publicly admit the mistakes of its previous governments' policies towards Moscow, and expanded military assistance to Ukraine.

In 2003, Berlin refused to participate in the Iraq War, which had caused a huge rift in German-U.S. ties and led to Germany's isolation among its Western allies. Nevertheless, Biden said he would work "in lockstep" with Germany to deliver crucial security assistance to Ukraine. After the meeting, Scholz tweeted, thanking Biden for his "leadership." On the Ukraine issue, Berline still maintains the bottom line: Not acting alone.

As the Ukraine crisis lingers on, the German public has a strong will to oppose the war. The end of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline disrupted Germany's long-term energy security and triggered an energy crisis in the country. Energy shortages and skyrocketing prices have driven up manufacturing costs in Germany, fueled high inflation and put environmental goals on hold. Meanwhile, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has triggered a new round of refugee crisis, which has exacerbated social divisions in the nation.

The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is still ongoing, while the ceasefire and peace talks are far away. Expanding arms production, increasing military spending, and providing military assistance to Ukraine will have long-term consequences over Germany's economic and social development. In the next few years, how to deal with conflicts between Russia and U.S. will be the main challenge confronting Germany's domestic and foreign affairs.

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