President Biden’s Success in Dealing with China and Russia Runs Through Berlin

Brandenburg Gate. Source: Tomas Sereda, Getty Images

President Joe Biden not only inherited a nation whose democratic guardrails have been significantly damaged by his predecessor, he also is aware the world has been dramatically altered by the absence of American leadership.

Nearly a year ago, candidate Biden issued the position paper “Why America Must Lead Again,” the international equivalent to his domestic “Build Back Better” mantra. In it Biden listed a catalogue of Trump’s foreign policy failures: “President Trump abandoned U.S. allies … turned on our own intelligence professionals, diplomats and troops … launched ill-advised trade wars … and abdicated American leadership” on the world stage.

Then he outlined what he would do to reverse these mistakes.

His proposals included hosting a global Summit for Democracy whose priorities would be to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, and advance human rights.

He called out both China and Russia. He said China represents a special challenge as it extends its global reach economically while Russia fears a strong NATO because it’s “at the very heart of the United States’ national security.” He called for keeping the alliance’s military capabilities strong while expanding its capacity to nontraditional threats of “weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft.”

Biden included in the statement what some politicians and many in the business community have failed to comprehend — the important role the private sector should play in strengthening our democracy. He knows he must enlist America’s C-Suite to strengthen our position in the world by confronting the systemic problems posed by China and Russia to our economy and our democracy.

Early in his administration, Biden declared to the international community “America is back.” For that to become more than a slogan, the President must restore America’s leadership position in the world. To accomplish that, it must garner Germany’s support.

Germany is America’s Top European Union Ally

Germany is key because it has the strongest European economy, its largest population and, occupies a strategic location with Eastern Europe, Russia and the West. Since Britain has opted out of the European Union, Germany is our closest EU ally.

There is little doubt the Trump presidency had a destructive impact on our bilateral relationship with Germany. For President Biden to succeed in dealing with China and Russia, it is critical that a good working relationship be restored with Germany.

The Stark Reality of Donald Trump’s Legacy

In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, only 23% of Germans named the U.S. as their most important partner, and clear majorities do not see the U.S. as a partner on protecting free trade, democracy and human rights, nor on dealing with China. Overall, 79% of Germans say the relationship with the U.S is bad with a mere 18% viewing it as good. These findings are consistent with a recent poll taken by the European Council on Foreign Relations showing that 71% of Germans believe the U.S. political system is “broken.” But there are signs of hope.

Biden’s election was greeted with deep relief in Berlin. German officials had tired of Trump’s behavior to sow division among European countries. Biden is well-known in European capitals, having served for years as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and took an active role in U.S. foreign policy as Vice President in the Obama administration.

While America Slept, China Was on the Prowl

There is little debate that China has moved toward the center of the global economy long dominated by the United States. It has become a global financial market, turned much of the world into dependencies and expended almost $500 billion in its Belt and Road initiative, constructing projects in more than 140 countries.

Biden’s desire to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s rising as an equal economic power to the U.S. is not particularly popular with German political leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has visited China multiple times during her 15 years in office emphasizing business and research ties for both sides.

German industry has long been committed to globalization. The German economy depends on its ability to export its products as well as serve its customers wherever they are located. I personally observed this business principle being implemented as the head of U.S. government affairs for a leading German company that was one of the first to establish a presence in China.

Today, China is German automakers’ №1 market. The deep trade relations between Germany and China provide a significant tug on Germany’s willingness to accept U.S. policies. German officials know they have much to lose from any Cold War between the U.S. and China.

A Path Forward

There are, however, irritants in the German-Chinese relationship that Biden could use to leverage Germany’s support. A big concern is the dependency of both countries on China’s critical supply chains.

China dominates the world’s rare earth elements — minerals essential in the production of smartphones, electric vehicles, nuclear submarines and fighter aircraft. The U.S. has recently renewed its production of rare earth minerals by enlisting the Pentagon’s financial support in developing a domestic processing facility. Biden has also called for a100 day review of America’s supply-chain vulnerabilities in semiconductors, batteries, pharmaceuticals and strategic materials.

Germany and the U.S. have longstanding problems with safeguarding their intellectual property when dealing with China. China requires foreign investors to “share” their intellectual property with the Chinese government when production is moved to China. China has been known to steal intellectual property when “sharing” fails to do the job.

Seeking joint solutions to supply chain dependency, theft of intellectual property, and sharing in the production of rare earth minerals would go a long way to strengthen the bilateral relationship. It would help solve the largest obstacle currently confronting the two countries — Huawei, the Chinese technology company.

The Elephant in the Room

U.S. officials say Huawei can covertly access mobile phone networks around the world through so-called “back doors”, an obvious risk to a country’s national security. The U.S. has requested its allies — including Germany — not to purchase Huawei’s products that have a raft of applications including powering artificial intelligence and 5G communication networks.

So far Chancellor Merkel has been reluctant to sign on to the Huawei boycott. Her hesitancy has produced a tentative compromise passed by the German Parliament that would allow Huawei to do business in Germany but with monitoring to assure its security won’t be compromised by the Chinese. If finalized, this would be a big win for Huawei not only in Germany but opens the door to other EU nations. Unless overturned by the next Chancellor who will be elected in September, it will serve as a stark reminder as to how China has filled a vacuum during the United States’ four-year absence.

Poking the Bear

There are a number of issues with the potential for roiling U.S.-German relations that involve Russia. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was based less on economics and more on the Soviet military threat to the United States and Europe led by Germany.

While military security is obviously still important, other problems with Russia have been added to the mix including cyber security, human rights, cyber theft and its efforts to influence the U.S. elections. However, Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany may be the most perplexing.

The Biden administration argues the project would make Europe and Germany more dependent on Russian energy while increasing Russia’s coercive power over our chief ally. In addition, the sale of the Russian natural gas would end up transferring billions of funds into the Kremlin’s coffers to be made available to modernize and increase its military capability.

Not surprisingly, the administration has announced it’s imposing sanctions against the ship laying the complex final 100 miles of the pipeline. In response, Zurich Insurance Co. announced it would no longer insure the completion of the structure, throwing completion of the project in
doubt.

Navalny’s Poisoning and Imprisonment Reminds Germans They Should be Less Dependent on Russia, Not More

The latest wrinkle in this matter is Putin’s failed attempted murder of political rival Alexei Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on trumped up charges. The violation of Navalny’s political rights reminds Germans of why they should be less dependent on Russia, not more. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian officials and entities for the poisoning of the dissident leader. These actions might provide necessary cover for German officials who originally supported completion of the pipeline but are now looking for an excuse to oppose it.

It’s still too early to determine how much damage the Trump presidency has inflicted on our standing in the world. Nevertheless, Americans should feel hopeful that in President Biden, the U.S. has a leader with the experience, expertise and empathy to lead us back from the edge of darkness and restore America as a force for good at home and around the world. He will likely have to take the path forward with the strong support of our main ally — Germany.

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Tom Coleman is a former Republican Member of Congress from Missouri. He was a co-founder and Chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Study Group on Germany. He was awarded The Commander’s Cross Order of Merit by the President of Germany for his contribution to German-American relations.

Former Member of Congress (MO), policy expert, adjunct professor, Advisor Protect Democracy

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