Will Germany’s new leader be reliable enough for Washington? 

Prior to his meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was asked by the Washington Post if it bothered him that Germany had been painted as an unreliable ally amid the ongoing crisis between Russia and NATO.

“Reality is more important than rumors,” he responded.

Unfortunately for Scholz, rumors are not the problem: It’s perception—driven by much of what he’s done during his short time as chancellor since taking over from Angela Merkel in December. And while he arrived in Washington eager to stress that Germany remains the United States’ most important ally on the old continent, he also faced criticisms that have been steadily piling up.

Many of these criticisms have centered on Scholz’s reticence to commit to shutting down the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline if Russia further invades Ukraine. His comments in that same Washington Post interview didn’t help: “It is absolutely clear that in a situation like this all options are on the table. Please understand that I will not get into any specifics, but our answer will be united and decisive.” And at a White House press conference, Scholz seemed to refuse to mention the project by name—even after Biden brought the pipeline up in his remarks. When a journalist pressed, suggesting that talking about Nord Stream 2 might help win back US trust, Biden jumped in to say, “there’s no need,” and that Germany remains a valued partner and ally.

Scholz’s ambivalence is understandable, if not exactly laudable, as he doesn’t have much political capital to spend at the moment. Elected as a continuity candidate to follow Merkel, he would rather not start off his term by plunging his country into an energy crisis in the middle of winter. Furthermore, dodging questions in DC affords him greater maneuverability at home (at least for the time being). Washington can talk tough all it wants; if the threats work and Putin backs down, Scholz won’t have to wage a bruising fight within his party over a project his compatriots hold dear. And if they fail? He’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Given Biden’s remarks during the press conference, it appears that whatever Nord Stream 2 assurances Scholz gave the president behind closed doors were sufficient. But even if the ambiguous compromise is holding, it doesn’t mean that the good chancellor’s work is done. When Biden entered office, his goal was to recommit to the transatlantic alliance and prove that the United States is a reliable ally after four damaging years of President Donald Trump. Now, Scholz must do the same after a bumpy start to his tenure.

Here’s how he should do it.

Scholz’s next steps

First, he needs to get his party in line on Russia beyond the question of energy. The messaging coming out of Germany over the past few weeks has caused conniptions in Washington. Scholz may never be able to fully suppress the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) penchant for Ostpolitik (the Cold War-era normalization of German-Eastern Bloc relations), but he needs to tame it. Especially with former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder just tapped to sit on the board of Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom, Scholz will need to over-correct on Russia policy in order to stay in Washington’s good graces.

Second, Scholz must get serious about China policy, both for Germany itself, but in partnership with the United States as well. Although for obvious reasons China wasn’t high on the agenda during this meeting with Biden, the opportunity to build bridges here will remain. It’s worth recalling that Merkel’s foreign policy had a mercantilist bent to it, especially toward China. Her work on the European Union-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) put Germany on bad footing with the incoming Biden administration, but today the CAI is on ice, and it won’t be revived any time soon. 

Scholz should use the coming months to distance himself from this facet of Merkel’s legacy. He should stand firm in the face of Chinese economic coercion—especially by making common cause with Lithuania amid its trade spat with Beijing and toeing a tougher line on ongoing Chinese human-rights abuses. 

Finally, Scholz must stay true to his coalition’s commitment to increase Europe’s strategic independence. Although this concept has been an irritant to American policymakers in the past, the United States is finally coming around on European autonomy as a helpful goal at a time when the Ukraine crisis is raging with the China challenge looming in the background. European autonomy isn’t simply about defense; it’s an entire vision of Europe being a more capable and effective actor on the world stage. Decreasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and Chinese technology, while also increasing defense spending and playing a larger role in securing Europe’s broader neighborhood, falls under the same umbrella. Scholz, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, could be a champion of this cause if he wants to be. 

Of course, this is a lot to ask of Germany. Truly fulfilling this vision would require a sea change, since it goes to the heart of German pacifism and how Germany sees itself as a country. But if Scholz is to be a leader of consequence, he would do well to move his country in this direction.

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Councils Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz participates with President Joe Biden in a joint press conference in the White house on February 7, 2022. Photo by Leigh Vogel/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM/REUTERS