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LMC 2021

America Is Back, but… Europe and Especially Germany Need To Do Much More for European Security

It took President Joe Biden nearly five months before he made his first trip abroad in June, to Europe; he had more important things to do. Arguably, that is still the case today.

Constanze Stelzenmüller

Fritz Stern Chair, Brookings Institution

U.S. President Joe Biden at the EU-U.S. summit in Brussels in June 2021. Relieving the U.S. of some of the burden of European defense means giving the Biden administration more leeway to protect democracy at home, Constanze Stelzenmüller argues.
U.S. President Joe Biden at the EU-U.S. summit in Brussels in June 2021. Relieving the U.S. of some of the burden of European defense means giving the Biden administration more leeway to protect democracy at home, Constanze Stelzenmüller argues. Photo: AP/Scanpix

As of August, the death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic stood at more than 615,000 in the U.S., nearly as high as that of the Civil War. Given the rapid spread of the Delta variant, it may take many months before the full extent of the damage done by the pandemic to America’s economy and society is revealed. But America’s political polarization appears ever more entrenched. The “Big Lie” (that Biden is not legitimately elected) is believed by large majorities of Republican voters. Pandemic, mask, and vaccine denialism persist, with lethal consequences for the nation. The Republican party continues to radicalize, embracing hard right ideologues and conspiracy theorists.

Re-building America

The degree to which the previous president controls the narrative of what my Brookings colleague Jonathan Rauch has called the “epistemic secession”—the breaking away of Red and Blue America into their own hermetically sealed belief systems—was on display at the excruciating opening hearing of the January 6 commission. Only two Republicans, Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Congressman Adam Kinzinger, had the courage to condemn that day’s assault on the Capitol and the integrity of the election. Yet the Republican leadership insisted on the Trumpian line that the investigation is a partisan witch hunt.

Barack Obama once said that the U.S. should focus on “nation-building at home.” What he meant was that the U.S. should avoid long military missions in faraway lands. Today, Biden’s team—and no doubt he himself—is keenly aware that nation-building at home is the essential challenge of his tenure. Re-building America will determine not just the success of his presidency, but perhaps the survival of American democracy.

Re-building America will determine not just the success of his presidency, but perhaps the survival of American democracy.

Of course an American president cannot ignore the world. China surveils its own population, abuses its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, cracks down on the democratic opposition in Hong Kong, threatens the democratic government in Taiwan, and tries to cajole or bully European governments into political alignment with its goals. Russia parades a hundred thousand troops at Ukraine’s border, jockeys for influence in the Middle East, and increasingly represses its own civil society. Chinese and Russian hacking and hybrid operations in the West are escalating. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have regained power.

Hence Biden’s trip to Europe. First the G7 summit in London, then the EU and NATO meetings in Brussels, and finally the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The message: America is back, and it needs to close ranks with its European allies for a systemic competition between the democracies and the authoritarian great powers—Russia and China. The pictures were perfect, the tone of Biden’s meetings with Europeans was cordial, the communiqués promised a dense agenda of cooperation. The encounter with Putin, in contrast, was cool and businesslike; the goal, President Biden said, was “stability and predictability.” So far, so good.

Nord Stream 2

Six weeks later, the Biden administration (having already waived sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline in May) signed a bilateral deal with Germany to permit completion of the project, which circumvents the transit route through Ukraine to deliver gas directly through the Baltic Sea to Germany. Is the Biden administration sacrificing solidarity with eastern Europe in order to secure Germany’s support in its rivalry with China?

The criticism of the U.S.-German deal is certainly deserved. It undermines Ukraine’s security, it divides Europe, and it even divides Democrats in Washington.

Yet the unpleasant truth is: there were no other options. Stopping NS2 would have incurred a lawsuit for damages against the German government for an estimated 10 billion euros. Sanctioning it might well have been the final blow to an already badly damaged U.S.-German relationship; Europe’s anchor economy is key to American purposes in Europe. And—as Elisabeth Braw has pointed out—the U.S. habit of unilateral sanctions risks boomeranging. It is already inspiring China to follow suit; ultimately, this could undermine the global dollar economy.

However, there is also a more pragmatic way to look at it. The U.S.-German agreement makes Berlin the political warden of Ukraine. Whatever happens next, will be Germany’s responsibility. The burden of proof that the deal will not damage Ukraine, or central and eastern Europe, is on Germany. In other words: should the Kremlin contemplate further destabilizing actions, it would not just be taking on Kyiv — it would be taking on Berlin. In the larger regional context of civil societies in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova firmly choosing to align themselves with Europe, as well as Putin’s growing unpopularity in Russia, the view from the Kremlin looks a lot less good.

Indeed, there is a much larger, urgent problem to be addressed, and the fight over NS2 is both a part of it and a distraction from it: the lack of a U.S.-European effort to develop a joint approach with regards to Russia. The Biden administration’s minimalist focus on arms control and “stable and predictable” relations, or Germany’s attempts to balance sanctions and engagement are far from enough; a much more robust and activist strategy to make the region more resilient is needed. But how can other Europeans push for such a shift?

Simple. As the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Jeremy Shapiro has noted, the Biden administration needs the EU’s immense trade and regulatory powers in managing the rivalry with China; but those powers dissipate when European unity and security are undermined. That gives Germany’s neighbors leverage in arguing for a stronger and more cohesive approach. But all Europeans—Germany included—are well advised to bolster such a demand for attention with proof that they too are willing to do more for the region’s security. Relieving the U.S. of some of the burden of European defense means giving the Biden administration more leeway to protect democracy at home. In fact, that is something we cannot afford not to do.

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