Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 27 January 2022

Merkel the Nazi Bitch and Joe Biden’s Germany headache

Angela Merkel’s nuclear blunder was a windfall for Vladimir Putin

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden in Washington in July 2021

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden in Washington in July 2021. In the face of the biggest potential threat to Europe’s security in decades, the US is still trying to forge consensus among its allies © Saul Leob/AFP/Getty Images


January 27, 2022 1:36 pm by Edward Luce

Early into his term, US president Joe Biden waived US sanctions on the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Why sour US-Germany relations at the moment he was proclaiming America was back? Discretion would be the better part of valour. In any case, Germany’s gas dependence was a logical outcome of former chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to hasten the end of German nuclear power. 

With hindsight, Biden might regret that waiver. Germany’s reluctance to offend its main gas supplier is a leading cause of transatlantic tension amid Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian troop build-up. Half of Germany’s gas supply comes from Russia. In normal times that would be placing too many eggs in one basket. In mid-winter, with rising energy inflation and Russian units amassing on Ukraine’s border, it gives Putin a weapon. 

The curious thing — and a source of anguish in Washington — is that Germany still half-believes the pipeline will give it leverage over Russia, rather than vice versa. Some German ministers echo Merkel’s claim that Nord Stream 2 is a commercial project with no geopolitical implications. They cannot have it both ways. Either the pipeline is an incentive for Russia to behave well or it has no impact either way. The third explanation — that it gives Russia a tool to divide Europe — has more going for it. In the face of the biggest potential threat to Europe’s security in decades, the US is still trying to forge consensus among its allies. Germany is the biggest foot-dragger. 

The question is how Biden can get round this. One solution, which he is pursuing, is to find Germany alternative suppliers. Qatar is top of the list — as are stepped-up US liquefied natural gas shipments. But the logistical challenges are big. There appears to be no appetite in Germany to change its mind on nuclear energy. Germany’s anti-nuclear feelings have been high since the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. 

Merkel’s move was prompted by a public backlash following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. But the goal did not originate with her. Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor, was the first to announce Germany would phase out nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear sentiment seems to trump geopolitics. This month, Germany shut down three of its remaining six nuclear plants, weeks after Russian troops had concentrated on Ukraine’s border. The rest will be closed later this year. 

Anti-nuclear feeling also seems to outweigh concern over global warming. France is upping its bet on nuclear energy while Germany, which has higher carbon intensity than most of its neighbours, insists that Brussels should not treat nuclear energy as a renewable. This puts Germany in a tenacious minority. 

In the build-up to the 2003 Iraq war, Robert Kagan famously argued that Europeans were from Venus and Americans were from Mars. That captured the mood before the Iraq invasion — Germany and France were both implacably opposed. Events proved them right. It does not capture today’s Europe. Many of Nato’s members, notably France, the UK, Poland, the Baltic states, are as hawkish on Russia as America is. 

But Venus has served as a good metaphor for Germany since the second world war. With the noblest of intentions, Germany has been driven by a desire to avoid repeating history and atone for its destruction of Russia. The impulse is inherently moral. That does not mean it is practical. Without much evidence, Germany believed that its commercial ties with the Soviet Union played a big role in ending the cold war. 

There are few grounds to think the threat of financial penalties will make Putin think twice. Russia has amassed $620bn in reserves since it annexed Crimea in 2014. It is also diversifying its markets: China is set to become one of Russia’s largest gas buyers. Berlin, meanwhile, is blocking export of German-made weapons to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s defence minister, told Kyiv that Berlin’s gift of 5,000 helmets was “a very clear signal we stand by your side”. 

As the world ventures further into the jungle of great power rivalry, Germany’s approach offers a test case of whether its mix of ethics and commerce — “Merkantilism”, as two scholars recently dubbed it — can calm the region. The world would be a better place were it to work. The evidence so far suggests that Germany has become useful to Russia, the Mars of this crisis, even if it does not mean to be.

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