Is Germany A Reliable U.S. Ally? Berlin Still Wonders the Same About Washington

As commentators in the United States criticize Germany for its hesitance to send weapons to Ukraine in the midst of a potentially explosive crisis with Russia, lingering doubts about Washington's commitments live on in Berlin and other European capitals after their tumultuous experience with former President Donald Trump.

The previous U.S. administration's constant criticism of Berlin, its decision to withdraw troops from Germany and to more broadly disparage the nature of the transatlantic relationship has evoked concerns that, while President Joe Biden has taken a different approach, future White House leadership could again express skepticism toward NATO.

"When you sit in the U.S. the question is 'Is Germany a reliable ally?' The question over in Europe is 'Is America going to be a reliable ally?'" Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the U.S. German Marshall Fund, told Newsweek.

Kleine-Brockhoff, who previously served as adviser to then-German President Joachim Gauck, has just arrived in Washington from Kyiv, where he participated in a tour in which officials, lawmakers and journalists of various nationalities met with government and civil society figures in Ukraine to discuss the present situation.

He described the atmosphere as "calm" — potentially to a fault, he argued — as it was not clear to him that Ukraine was "seriously prepared" for even the possibility of an attack launched by the tens of thousands of Russian troops just across the border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his top security chief Oleksiy Danilov have repeatedly urged the country not to panic despite the flight of Western diplomat family members and an uptick in militia recruitment and arms sales.

But even if Russian military movements were interpreted differently by Ukrainian officials than their Western counterparts, Kyiv has broadcast an appeal for arms in hopes of deterring Moscow. With no clear path to NATO membership and no alliance state willing to send troops, Kleine-Brockhoff said the message from Ukraine was, "'We understand that you won't be here, but support us.'"

That plea has been answered by a number of NATO states, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and Baltic countries also living at the Russian border. In Germany, however, the issue was met with a far more restrained response, one that was answered by a chorus of criticism echoing the period of strained relations that he called "the blame Germany first policy" pursued by Trump.

"And now the question in a divided polarized country is, 'Is the United States going to be consistent? Is there going to be a consistency in foreign policy?'" Kleine-Brockhoff asked. "And that, of course, influences your choices about making investments into that."

"So I think the U.S. currently is hampered not only by the history of the Trump administration but by the prospect of Trump," he added, "either with Trump or without Trump."

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock address a press conference following a meeting with their counterparts from Britain and France at the German Foreign Office in Berlin on January 20. Blinken headed to Berlin for meetings with key European allies, as part of a whirlwind diplomatic tour to stop Russia from marching on Ukraine ahead of a meeting with his Moscow counterpart. KAY NIETFELD/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Divisions among NATO members have existed since the alliance's founding just several years after the end of World War II in 1949, and especially as the coalition expanded to include some 30 states. Moscow has placed the eastward expansion of NATO, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago, at the center of the current tensions over Ukraine, which seeks to join the alliance in a move that the Kremlin has argued would further threaten Russian national security.

For Germany, which joined NATO as West Germany in 1955 and as a unified entity after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this has meant a balancing act of its alliance commitments and its own sovereign interests.

"There's this element of sovereignty, but there's also a high incentive of being a good NATO ally," Kleine-Brockhoff said, "and there may be a conflict between those two, and there often is, and that's why you see these frictions in NATO."

"And certainly Germany is the most dovish," he added.

Germany's pacificism and restrictive arms export policy are rooted in history, one far predating the Trump administration. Memories of World War II killing fields in Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, termed "Bloodlands" by author and historian Timothy D. Snyder, still weigh heavily on the conscience of the modern German nation.

"The idea that Germany would get involved militarily or by arms sales in the bloodlands that it created is a very far-fetched idea," Kleine-Brockhoff said. He noted that this would be especially so if its involvement came "in a way to make things worse," leaving Berlin in a predicament where it was stuck between risking guilt by action, or guilt by inaction.

But Kleine-Brockhoff said the points of contention among NATO countries actually surprised him less today than the areas of agreement, and that applied to Germany's role as well.

This unity and the idea that support did not only come in the form of weapons were the core messages expressed by a German official who spoke with Newsweek on the condition of anonymity.

"Germany is one of the biggest donors to Ukraine and we are supporting Ukraine," the German official said. "For many years we've been the biggest donor, we have been helping in the pandemic with masks, we stood up and we stand by Ukraine's sovereignty and have been a central actor in assuring that U.S. sanctions regarding Crimea are extended regularly."

Germany joined fellow NATO countries in rejecting Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula shortly after the 2014 political uprising that brought to power a pro-West government in Ukraine. Berlin has also repeatedly accused Moscow of ramping up tensions near the eastern Ukrainian border, where Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russia separatists have continued to clash for more than seven years.

In an attempt to resolve this conflict, Germany also joined France, Russia and Ukraine to form the Normandy Format, which ultimately led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol between Kyiv and the two rebels republics of the Donbas region. This pact has unraveled in the years since, but a new sign of hope for diplomacy came Wednesday as the French presidency announced all sides agreed to respect a 2020 ceasefire at the Russia-Ukraine border.

Talks are set to resume two weeks from now in Berlin, putting Germany at the forefront of efforts to find a peaceful resolution to what otherwise could devolve into what some such as Biden himself have cautioned could be the largest-scale war Europe has seen since World War II.

And though Germany broke with allies in pursuing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia, the German official said even canceling this project at a time of soaring energy prices in Europe could not be ruled out in the event of Russian military action against Ukraine.

"The German foreign minister and the chancellor stressed many times that if Russia crosses a red line, if it uses energy as a weapon, it will have to pay a high price," the German official said, "and that will be severe consequences and nothing is off the table, including Nord Stream 2."

Given these steps and some $2 billion in German support since unrest first broke out between Ukraine and Russia, the German official said that "Ukraine knows where we stand."

This view was endorsed Wednesday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who recently returned from talks with German officials. During a press conference, the top U.S. diplomat said he was "absolutely confident in German solidarity in being together with us and other allies and partners in confronting renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine."

"Now, look, different countries have different authorities. They have different capabilities. They have different areas of expertise," Blinken said. "And we're bringing all of those to bear, but doing it in a way that is complementary, and it speaks to the shared commitment that we have to defend Ukraine's territorial integrity, its sovereignty, and its independence."

Moscow, whose foreign minister also recently met his German counterpart, also had positive things to say about the country's relationship with Berlin. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said contacts have gone on uninterrupted since Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany's first new head of state in 16 years, took office last month.

"Germany is one of our main partners in Western Europe, and we very much value our relations, we do expect that they will continue to flourish," Peskov told reporters Wednesday, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.

In Ukraine itself, the picture of Germany was less rosy. That same day, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko dismissed Germany's offer to send 5,000 helmets to Ukraine as a "joke" that left him "speechless."

"The defence ministry apparently hasn't realized that we are confronted with perfectly equipped Russian forces that can start another invasion of Ukraine at any time," Klitschko told German newspaper Bild.

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Ground personnel unload weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and other military hardware, delivered on a National Airlines plane by the United States military at Boryspil Airport near Kyiv on January 25 in Boryspil, Ukraine. The shipment comes as tensions between the NATO military alliance and Russia are intensifying as a result of a worsening security situation along the border between Russia and Ukraine. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The new German government, made up of a strenuous coalition of three top political parties, has also been subject to searing criticism at home from those who wish their leaders would lay out a more transparent approach to Russia and Ukraine.

"Germany has no clear position on Nord Stream 2 and weapons supply to Ukraine," Stefan Meister, head of the German Council on Foreign Relations' International Order and Democracy Program, told Newsweek. "It weakens Germany as a leading country in Europe, undermines the EU and transatlantic relations."

"It is about the credibility of Germany as a key actor in Europe," he added. "This government is lacking leadership and does not lead Europe on Russia and Ukraine, and that plays in the hands of Mr. Putin."

Meister rejected Nord Stream 2 as "the wrong project" for Berlin, but he acknowledged the admissibility of declining to send arms to Ukraine. At the same time, he argued Germany should stand back and allow allies like Estonia to send German-origin weapons, something Berlin has so far blocked Tallinn from doing.

"We can refuse weapons supply to Ukraine," Meister said, "but then we should not hinder other NATO members to do so and should have a serious discussion about this."

As the debate unfolds in Berlin, it raises are broader questions regarding the country's place on the international stage two decades into the 21st century amid a rapidly shifting world order. Germany is the world's fourth-largest economy, the biggest in Europe and more than two and a half times that of Russia, despite having a far smaller military.

Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Newsweek that "the Trump administration's frosty relationship with Germany resulted in a marked erosion of confidence in U.S. leadership and sharpened Germany's willingness to embrace a multipolar order."

"But," he argued, this "merely exacerbated" ongoing trends tied to Germany's deeper quest for a more independent track on foreign affairs, trends he said "were already firmly set into motion" before the Trump administration and the current crisis over Ukraine.

One prior example of this could be seen in Germany's decision more than a decade ago to break with Western U.N. Security Council permanent members France, the U.K. and the U.S. and instead join China and Russia in abstaining from the 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution that greenlit NATO intervention in Libya.

"Germany is carving out a foreign policy which balances its alliance commitments within NATO and embrace of a multipolar world order," Ramani said. "It wants the security guarantees that come with the relationship with the U.S. and a leadership role in the EU, but also wishes to establish stronger ties with Russia and China to strengthen its geopolitical standing."

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz telephones the U.S. President Joe Biden, who congratulated him on taking office, on December 10, 2021. Scholz has succeeded former Chancellor Angela Merkel as Germany's first new head of state in 16 years. Bundesregierung/Getty Images