Mr Scholz goes to Washington

The conviction is that the Americans should listen to the Germans, because the latter have a point and are it the right, and the former only have strength. That there is someone who teaches and someone who needs to be taught, someone mature and responsible and someone unpredictable in his decisions and reactions. Do we not know this too?

As you read these words, Joe Biden is now welcoming Olaf Scholz to the White House. Or is it after the meeting and are they making statements to the press? Statements filled with declarations of transatlantic friendship and cooperation, of joint struggle for democratic-liberal values in the world and of support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. There are also bound to be a few circular sentences about how the friendship between the two countries is unshakeable despite some inevitable differences, which, however, must not overshadow it. The German Chancellor will probably not fail to take the opportunity to speak out on behalf of Europe and the Europeans, who are America’s allies, but are after all powerful as a community and must be reckoned with in a multipolar world. The US President will talk about the division of the world into democratic and autocratic parts.

In this way they will mark the differences delicately, but about what really happened – we will find out over the next weeks. The politicians of the big countries remaining in the alliance, but not agreeing too much with each other, are not used to talking about it openly. Especially in a situation where the Chinese Dragon and the Russian Bear, not to mention the smaller animals, would love to see conflict, while the Dragon is completely openly tempting Europe, but above all Germany, to reverse alliances. We are left to ponder the bigger picture and look at how the Germans think about the Americans and what that thinking might mean for the future of transatlantic relations, including for us.

“Moral superiority”… of Germany

I have a strong impression that Olaf Scholz, with all the baggage of German political thinking and a sense of moral superiority towards the Yanks, went to Washington to – like the character played by James Stewart in a Frank Capra film – put things in order there and show the Americans how the world should really be run. It seems to him that the promise of a “Zeitenwende”, or “epochal change” in German politics, thrown around a year ago has already become a “action-word” in public circulation (copyright by Czesław Bielecki) that does not need to be endowed with meaning. And it is enough for his country to once again sit in the comfortable position of “moral superpower”, which can lecture others as if nothing had happened before.
Ursula von der Leyen while still CDU Minister of Defence of Germany talks to Christoph Heusgen, then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign affairs advisor. Federal government meeting in Berlin, 26 April 2017. Photo PAP/DPA , Michael Kappeler
As usual, such attitudes are better seen when people in less prominent positions are observed. This is because they are not so carefully draped in the PR-icing of and so their true attitudes shine through. Here is exhibit one before us.

  Christoph Heusgen, recently head of the Munich Security Forum, previously German ambassador to the United Nations. And even before that, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-standing foreign affairs adviser during the period when the Federal Republic pursued its only just policy towards Russia. He wrote a highly interesting article last May, on the wave of the “Zeitenwende” – it was entitled “The war in Ukraine will be a historic turning point” and was published in the prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs. This was at a time when Germany’s military aid to Ukraine had scarcely gone beyond the famous five thousand helmets, and fresh indignation at Merkel’s policies leading up to the Russian invasion had not yet died down. However, Heusgen did not seem overly concerned about this. His article boiled down to, no more and no less, lecturing the US on what it should do to better respond to Putin’s aggression and how it should change its mindset to make history happen “the right way”.

Particularly interesting was the author’s story from his time as ambassador to the UN. A didactic tale, so to speak. Well, as the General Assembly was about to vote on a resolution condemning the United States for its intention to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Heusgen (and he was not the only one) received a note from the American ambassador Nikki Haley saying that if his country supported the resolution, she would inform President Donald Trump. Shocked by this chicanery, the German ambassador requested a meeting with Haley and told her his story of a man born after a terrible war, growing up in a divided country and pinning his hopes on the European Union that established the rule of law, not the rule of force. After this introduction, he asked her if she already understood how astonishing it was for him to be asked to ignore international law and not vote for this resolution. This time she was – relata refero – “shocked”. Heusgen then recounted Haley’s brief exchange with an advisor, who explained to her that Security Council resolution number 478 is legally binding and prohibits member states from placing their embassies in Israel in Jerusalem. After this consultation, the American allegedly changed the subject quickly.

Let us note in passing that Christoph Heusgen fails to mention that the Security Council resolution was voted on in 1980, under completely different political conditions in the world and, above all, in the Middle East. The United States abstained from the vote at the time, even though it could have vetoed the resolution. Nor does he mention that, alongside the option to vote against the resolution, which in his optics was in favour of violating international law, there was the option to abstain, which would have marked a distance from President Trump’s decision, but at the same time would have emphasised solidarity with the United States rather than with its opponents. This would have been a deserving diplomatic solution, but Heusgen preferred to instruct his American colleague from the position of a man who had tasted grief and is sensitive to breaking the law. Very didactic.

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I wrote above that such an action was a violation of international law in the optics of the German ambassador, although of course he was formally correct in this case. However, I have the impression that he used this argument purely instrumentally. In the same text, he called it a “violation of international law” for the United States to withdraw from the 2015 JCPOA agreement with Iran [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, concerning the control of Iran”s nuclear weapons development programme; an agreement reached despite Israel’s opposition, fearful of Iran’s nuclear programme – ed]. On such a basis, any withdrawal from an international agreement that one has co-created could be considered a violation of the law.

“Partnership in leadership”

But Ambassador Heusgen’s pedagogical tale did not end there. For he then described his harmonious cooperation with his successor Nikki Haley. This one, in turn, although also a nominee of Donald Trump, defied him and, together with other law-abiding representatives at the UN, worked tirelessly for a better tomorrow. Hand in hand, of course, with the representative of the Federal Republic. “This is the kind of cooperation a global alliance should aim for: a common policy based on international law, humanitarianism and human rights” – Heusgen concluded.

Let us repeat: he dressed up the text on disagreement with the policies pursued by the previous US President in the guise of a quasi-educational parable featuring two ambassadors, one evil and one good. One supported the policies of its president, while the other tried to do the right thing. Together with Germany, which, after all, always does the right thing.

There is no doubt, therefore, what America should be doing: constantly consulting its European (read: German) allies. In this context, Heusgen recalls with some palpable longing the promise that George H. W. Bush made to Helmut Kohl in 1989: “partnerships in leadership”. This partnership should be introduced especially now, in the face of the war in Ukraine. While it is true that the United States played an “undoubtedly positive” role by taking international leadership after the Russian aggression, it would be far better if the international community’s actions were “collective”, coordinated by partners from around the world who are determined to defend the international order.

One can imagine what military aid to Ukraine coordinated by such a law-abiding collective leadership would have looked like: without the decisive leadership of the United States and without hardliners like Poland, which simply started delivering hundreds of tanks and tons of ammunition without looking to see whether a courier with official approval had finally arrived from Berlin, Brussels or Paris. Those who are curious can take a look at the website of the Chancellery, where recently, as part of an information offensive to show Germany as the leader in military aid to Ukraine, a list was posted of everything that had been sent from that country as military aid.

Of purely military significance is the state-of-the-art Iris-T anti-aircraft set, of which (sic!) one solitary vehicle was delivered, followed by the well-reputed – until tested in real combat – 155 mm calibre howitzers (PZH2000) of 14, the obsolete and lacking in missiles Gepard anti-aircraft sets of 32, as well as 500 Stingers and 900 Panzerfaust-3s. The remaining deliveries are mostly ancillary equipment, undoubtedly necessary for combat, but far less “lethal”, to use an old term from the period of hesitation about whether to supply Ukraine with anything besides helmets after all. All this to the tune of 2.5 billion euro – €2,558,391,406 to be precise.
German Deputy Defence Minister Siemtje Moeller during a statement to the press related to the deployment of a Bundesmarine corvette to NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1), as part of the response force securing the Pact’s northern flank at sea. The port of Wilhelmshaven in northern Germany, 26 February 2022. photo PAP/EPA, Focke Strangmann
Let us conclude the presentation of exhibit number one with Christoph Heusgen’s forceful call to order of the American leadership: “Biden can foster a global union of states committed to international law. This will require a change of mindset on the part of the United States: it needs to coordinate more systematically with its partners and put compliance with the law at the core of all its actions.” In other words: you are admittedly big, rich and needed to protect us, but don’t think you can exalt yourself because of that, because we are the ones who know what to do.

“The Germans are getting involved. How about you Americans?”

It is time for exhibit two. It will have a somewhat ludic character, although also not without a pedagogical aspect. In front of us is Siemtje Moeller, the 39-year-old deputy defence minister in Olaf Scholz’s government, a French and Spanish teacher by training, who preferred a career in the SPD to teaching at the Wilhelmshaven highschool. And as a result, she landed a job at the Ministry of Defence, although there were probably other ministries involved as well, as is the case with party appointments. She used her teaching talents to explain to the Americans what “Zeitenwende” was. It has to be said that she did this with unforced Belfast charm and her colleagues in the US Department of Defence must have been a little taken aback.

Namely, Ms Moeller went to Washington last November on an official visit. Before she arrived, she decided to send her future interlocutors the above-mentioned explanation. If only she had confined herself to sending it! She decided to publish it! The renowned US Atlantic Council seized the opportunity. A text entitled “What is the state of Germany’s Zeitenwende?” by Ms Siemtje appeared on its website. In it, she proclaimed that in order to understand this epochal change, one must first grasp the difference in security concepts between the two countries. “The German concept of change through trade was not the result of greed, nor was it new” – wrote Moeller, referring to Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of the American revolution against Britain, who was of the opinion that free trade would stamp out wars. Quite an original way to defend the construction of Nord Stream 2...

The Minister then went on to splutter about what Germany was going to do under the Zeitenwende, not paying too much attention to the fact that nine months had already passed since Chancellor Scholz’s famous speech and the use of the future tense was slowly beginning to baffle observers. Of accomplished things, it boasted of having delivered to Ukraine the Iris-T system, multiple launch rocket systems and cannon howitzers, “decisive in turning the tide of war”. Yes, one anti-aircraft system, five launchers and fourteen gun-howitzers, half of which were usually under repair, were going to turn the tide of war.

Ms Moeller probably did not realise what a buffoonery this enumeration was. It would have sounded great at a rally of supporters of the German Social Democrats, hungry for assurances about how their country is leading the way in helping to repel Putin’s aggression, but in the eyes of the professionals at the Department of Defence, it exposed the weakness and incompetence of their guest. Undaunted, she ended on a truly impressive note, lecturing the Americans that “transatlantic cooperation is not just a desire, but a need to preserve the liberal world order and thus our way of life in the coming decade. Germany is getting involved. Are you?” I can imagine with what perverse delight the Atlantic Council people published this text…

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The two “exhibits” cited above are undoubtedly very different from each other. The first is distant from Chancellor Scholz politically, the second is very close to him. The first presents high-level experience and political analysis, the second betrays no experience and the level of analysis is rather basic. However, there is something they have in common: a mindset. The conviction that the Americans should listen to the Germans, because the latter have a point and are it the right, and the former only have strength.

What else could have guided Ms Moeller when, instead of formulating a simple and polite sentence like “I would like to present to my American hosts what our ‘Zeitenwende’ is all about,” she chose to write: “here is what the United States needs to know about this term and this crucial moment for Germany”? One can, of course, assume that the mannerism of a teacher, used to speaking in a tone that is clear and understandable to her students, got the better of her. The more intellectually sophisticated Heusgen put it more delicately, saying that America would have to change its way of thinking, but isn’t this, in fact, an expression of the same attitude? Resulting from the conviction that there is someone who teaches and someone who needs to be taught, someone mature and responsible and someone unpredictable in his decisions and reactions. Do we not know this too?

Scholz’s “multipolar” world

Finally, the most important exhibit: Chancellor Olaf Scholz. A man who would probably very much like to follow in the German tradition of long terms of office for chancellors, which allowed them to pursue stable policies. And this is probably why he avoids formulating his thoughts too clearly, preferring slogans and a certain ambiguity. This does not mean, however, that he has no plans. In a wide-ranging article published last December in Foreign Affairs, he extended “Zeitenwende” to the whole world, because the tectonic shift in politics does not only affect Germany, after all, but everyone.

His text was much more balanced and calm than the texts in exhibits one and two. One cannot read from it any arrogance or desire to lecture anyone, least of all the United States. One can freely assume that he leaves this to his acolytes. The most important message of the text was a call for the world not to be divided into blocs again and the question: “how can we, as Europeans and as the European Union, remain independent players in an increasingly multipolar world?”

Germany is recovering from the reality that the United States was the world’s sole superpower and, although it limited its allies by its own power, it kept them safe. Then again, by this time, the awareness of threats had diminished considerably and perhaps many truly believed that the world would always be safe again and that the only thing worth doing was to accuse the world’s policeman of abusing his power. The rise of China’s power and importance, as well as the mistakes in international policy made under Bush Jr. and Barack Obama, have made this situation a thing of the past. It may be that the world will once again be divided into two large blocs (China and Russia are openly pursuing this) and a group of non-aligned states that will be less openly taking sides. When push comes to shove, however, no one will be left without an “allocation”. Well, maybe a giant like India.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden at the G7 summit at Elmau Castle in Bavaria. 26 June 2022 Photo PAP/DPA, Sven Hoppe
Olaf Scholz is intensely trying to counter this. He repeats the talk of a “multipolar” world and does not want to subscribe to the American-led camp, as can be seen, for example, in his attitude towards China. He does so in the certain hope that, once this new world has crystallised, Germany on its own and Germany as the country steering the European Union will become one of the most important poles of this newly arranged multipolar world. This is a game with great stakes. In the referenced article he wrote: “Our democracy, security and prosperity depend on a commitment to common rules. That is why Germany intends to become a guarantor of European security, as our allies expect of us, a bridge-builder in the European Union and an advocate of multilateral solutions to global problems. This is the only way for Germany to successfully navigate through the geopolitical rapids of our time.”

This is the German version of Macron’s “strategic autonomy”, only not spoken loud and clear, because the Germans, unlike the French, prefer to do rather than speak. The common rules are, of course, to keep Washington in check, because Beijing will talk about them rather than apply them, and no one will forbid it from doing so. European security will continue to be guaranteed by the Americans, whom the Europeans, led by Germany, will deceive with constant upgrading of combat capabilities, as Berlin is now deceiving them with the “Zeitenwende”. The building of bridges within the Union will consist of pacifying the unruly. Multilateral solutions to global problems will be about taking up the game with China. After all, one of Scholz’s associates recently said that the fact that the “Wandel durch Handel” with Moscow did not work out does not necessarily mean that the same will not work out with Beijing...

Great plans, but they may be hindered by reality. It is a fact that the one hundred billion euro fund for the development of the Bundeswehr, announced in the “Zeitenwende” speech, has not yet been spent after a year, while inflation has already eaten up several percent of it. It is a fact that the repeatedly promised 2 per cent of defence spending in the budget will probably not materialise until 2026, and could fall again after that. It is also a fact that the real supply of armaments to Ukraine is – in proportion to the strength of the economy – in the case of Germany many times lower than the US commitment.

The Germans fear that the successor to the current US president will once again be Donald Trump and he will this time effectively force their country and Europe to take responsibility for their own security. Looking at Joe Biden’s policies, however, it is reasonable to assume that a Democratic president will also push hard for this. And that would be a very difficult “Zeitenwende” for Olaf Scholz and his colleagues to swallow.

– Robert Bogdanski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: US President Joe Biden speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a summit of European Union leaders convened in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at EU headquarters in Brussels. Belgium, 24 March 2022. Photo POOL / Reuters / Forum
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