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War in Ukraine: A stress test for US-German relations

Whether Patriots, tanks or jets, getting from no to yes on Western weapons for Ukraine has been fraught — but also formulaic. The back-and-forth has put a new spin on the US-German relationship.

Joe Biden und Olaf Scholz sitting at a desk smiling into the cameras during a G7 meeting in 2022
US President Joe Biden has publicly praised German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on his "steadfast commitment" to UkraineImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The labored decision by Western allies to send Ukraine their main battle tanks is just the most recent iteration of a pattern of support that kicked off with Russia's invasion almost one year ago.

What starts as a hard no, whether to heavy weaponry, advanced air defense, or top-tier armored vehicles, slowly softens to a yes, but only after weeks of negotiations, technical excuses, and efforts among allies to show unity even as those that want to move faster put pressure on more reluctant partners.

For the United States and Germany, the alliance's largest members particularly in terms of economic might, industrial capacity, and purchasing power, the question of how and how much to help Ukraine defend itself has colored the bilateral relationship in new ways. And that is just one part of a much more complex, global picture.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius drives on a Leopard 2 tank during a visit at a Bundeswehr tank battalion
After weeks of discussions behind closed doors, Germany has agreed to send Leopard 2 main battle tanks to UkraineImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

From pressure to patience

After the bullying years of President Donald Trump, his successor, Joe Biden, has taken a catch-more-flies-with-honey approach to European allies. Rather than a "strategy of blame," he and his administration have shown patience and frequently praised Germany for its contributions.

That is also an effort to give Germany the diplomatic "cover" it needs to make uncomfortable policy decisions, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior expert with the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office, told DW.

Most recently, Biden publicly complimented Chancellor Olaf Scholz for his "steadfast commitment" to Ukraine and credited Germany for having "stepped up."

Behind closed doors, however, Kleine-Brockhoff said, the debate over the recent issue of battle tank deliveries took on a different tone.

"The German chancellor put pressure on the Americans and said, 'I will not before you do.'" Kleine-Brockhoff explained. "That has caused some irritation on the Washington side," especially because the US has refrained from pushing Germany.

Although Biden denied that pressure from Scholz forced him to change his mind on sending US Abrams tanks, the weeks-long exchange was a reminder of the German need for its bigger ally to show its hand before it feels it can reveal its own.

Policymakers in Washington have now realized "how much the Germans actually want to be following, not leading," Kleine-Brockhoff said.

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Old tensions ease, new ones arise

For Scholz's critics, that seems to contradict his blustery address to the Bundestag, the German parliament, just days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February. In it, he declared a "Zeitenwende" — a historic turning point — that demanded a significant boost in military spending and a more robust security policy.

"It took a war for the Germans to shift course" on long-simmering "irritants" in the US-German relationship, Kleine-Brockhoff said.

For the Americans, those were Germany's resistance to higher military spending — it has been falling short of the NATO agreement of 2% of GDP — and its Nord Stream gas projects with Russia. Germany, for its part, was irked by the idea that an ally would threaten sanctions to deter from that energy deal.

Those issues have since fallen by the wayside, as has Germany's domestic debate about its participation in NATO "nuclear sharing," a policy that puts US nuclear weapons on German soil and requires German aircraft to carry them.

Diverging interests

Biden's impulse to put American interests first, such as with the subsidy-rich Inflation Reduction Act, competing with his vision of a coalition of democracies standing up to autocracies, make for a complex balancing act that plays out in the US-German relationship.

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Whereas Germany views Ukraine as a matter of regional security, for the US the war there is one piece in a convoluted game of geopolitical chess. A weaker Russia could be a boon to US interests elsewhere — a view that Germany simply doesn't share.

"With a few exceptions, [Germany] doesn't even have the mental or intellectual firepower to think in those terms," James Davis, the director of the Institute for Political Science at the University of St. Gallen, told DW. "Nobody is trained to do that."

The US needs Germany to share more of the burden of defending Europe so it can commit more resources to contest China in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Germany needs to know it can count on US support in Europe.

"Would you place your bets with the US right now? It's a fair question," Davis said.

Coming out of the damage of the Trump years, US allies like Germany face bipartisan interest in the Pacific and an expectation to get tougher on China. An unpredictable Republican Party controls Congress, which threatens a cataclysmic debt default in the US and serves as a sober reminder that the clock on the Biden White House is ticking.

Annalena Baerbock and Anthony Blinken chatting outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin in June 2022
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her US counterpart Anthony Blinken are both known not to like mincing their wordsImage: Florian Gaertner/Photothek/picture alliance

New inputs, similar outputs

It's striking, Davis said, that despite major changes to the US-German relationship since the post-9/11 years, Germany's reluctance to lead on foreign policy issues remains much the same.

German governments were critical of US militarism in Iraq, torture and abuse of captured fighters, and a mass spying campaign — of which the German government at the time was a target — which the political scientist said led them to want to keep away from the US and do little on the world stage.

The transatlantic relationship is now much warmer, but that hesitation remains.

"There's still this frustration, this kind of tension in the trans-Atlantic relationship," Davis said, "but this time it's because the Germans say, 'only with you.'"

The center-left Social Democrats, who lead Germany's three-party government coalition, have often advocated a cooperative approach with Russia, the biggest country in Europe and a major trading partner until the invasion. Many SPD lawmakers have changed their stance as a result of Russian aggression, but the party's critics remain skeptical.

Political ambivalence gets some backing from voters in eastern Germany, the erstwhile communist GDR that was a client state of the Soviet Union, who feel culturally closer to Russia than those in Germany's western parts, and have little appetite for confrontation with Moscow.

Former West Germany may be more pro-American, but the sentiment comes with the Cold War-era expectation of the US taking the lead.

"You've had quite a long time to grow into the new role," Davis said, rejecting the validity of the German "refrain" of its Nazi past and subsequent aversion to military power. "It reminds me of 30-year-olds who don't want to move out of their parents' houses," he added.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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