Transatlantic Relations
Virtual Event: Do We Need a Reset for Transatlantic Relations?

A Discussion with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff MP, Rachel Rizzo, and Jacob Heilbrunn
Munich Security Conference
© MSC/Marc Müller, CC BY 3.0 DE <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Discussion Summary

With the election of President Joe Biden in the United States, leaders and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic grew optimistic that relations between the U.S. and Europe would improve. Yet in the first months of the Biden presidency, disagreements on how to approach trade with China and ongoing concerns about the Nordstream 2 pipeline project cast doubt on how effectively the U.S. and E.U. will be able to work together as partners. In order to improve transatlantic relations, both Europe and the U.S. must rebuild the trust in each other that was lost. When both sides recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they can pursue their shared goal to fortify democratic norms.

Pandemic Response in the U.S. and Europe

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many in the U.S. viewed the E.U. countries and particularly Germany as role models in their pandemic response. Yet one year later, the E.U. and Germany are faltering in the vaccine distribution process. The E.U. suspended distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine due to marginal risks, while the U.S. made greater progress in vaccinating its population. The Netherlands, one of the richest member states of the E.U., did not invest sufficient funds in low-temperature refrigerators for the vaccine. As a result, the Netherlands fell into 26th place in the E.U., only before Bulgaria, for vaccinations. The E.U. bureaucracy’s slow response led to an even greater loss of lives from COVID-19 than if they had acted more quickly to vaccinate the population. Seeing these delays caused by the E.U. bureaucracy makes the U.S. wary of cooperating on a transatlantic pandemic response in the future.

On the other hand, leaders in Europe often found the Trump administration’s decisions to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, criticize the NATO alliance and reject the Iran nuclear deal to be bewildering behavior coming from an ally. Now, as the E.U. faces a practical problem of vaccine distribution and sees the U.S. succeeding in a measurable way where they are failing, policymakers may develop a more realistic view of the U.S. and its capabilities. Both the E.U. and the U.S. will recognize through this experience that their systems and approaches to problems each have their own strengths and weaknesses, establishing the basis for respectful cooperation in the future.

Protecting Democratic Norms in the E.U.

The Biden administration has made protecting democratic norms a priority, departing from the previous U.S. administration’s cultivation of ties with authoritarian regimes and their leaders. In his address to the Munich Security Conference, Biden sent a clear message that his administration is committed to the NATO alliance and strengthening democratic norms around the world. The developments in countries such as Hungary and Poland are different from what the Democrats in the U.S. would like to see in their partners. The Biden administration has pledged to take a stronger stance against authoritarian backsliding, while patching up relations with both France and Germany as primary partners in Europe.

Diverging Views on the Nordstream 2 Pipeline

The issue of Nordstream 2 reveals an awkward political constellation. Both the former German Chancellor and the sitting Chancellor, who comes from the state where the pipeline hits land, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, have promoted the project. The governor of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern established a climate protection foundation financed by Gazprom to promote Nordstream 2. The weight of political actors in Germany that supports the pipeline project is significant. However, with the rise in the Green Party’s popularity in Germany, along with the possibility that the next German Chancellor will come from a western state or Bavaria, it is less likely that the next German Chancellor and governing coalition will support the pipeline to the same extent.

From the perspective of some U.S. lawmakers, however, the Nordstream 2 pipeline project threatens to undo German investment in transatlantic relations. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz pledged to stop the confirmation of the next CIA director in order to apply pressure to stop the pipeline project. Five U.S. Members of Congress sent a letter advocating for the implementation of sanctions due to the project. A strategy that Germany could use to make the pipeline project palatable to the U.S. Congress would be to have an emergency brake mechanism to stop the flow of gas through the pipeline if Russia ever violates its agreements.

From a German lawmaker’s perspective, the argument that the Nordstream 2 pipeline in itself would increase Germany’s energy dependency on Russia is incorrect. The energy transfer in itself does not change the relationship, but Russia’s multiple pipeline projects have a greater destabilizing effect on Ukraine. In the longer term, the move to renewable energy will make the pipeline obsolete. To reduce Russia’s influence in the region now, a more productive focus for European and American counterparts would be to work on stabilizing Ukraine through the process of regulatory convergence and access to the single market. Although the domestic political and economic situation in Ukraine remains difficult, it is one of the few republics that came out of the USSR with a peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections. U.S. and E.U. counterparts should focus on helping to stabilize Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Relations with Russia

While an influential business lobby in favor of improving relations with Russia exists in Germany, relations between Russia and Germany are currently in an ice age on the political level. The case of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny gave a visibility to problems in Russia that Germans might not have known about unless they were following particular news sources. Recently, the propaganda outlet Russia Today was refused a business account in Germany and now threatens German correspondents in Moscow. In addition, against the argument that relations with Russia are improving, Germany now has twice as much economic exchange with Poland as it does with Russia.

Russia continues to have an expansionist foreign policy, and a popular Russian tabloid newspaper published a map that includes Estonia within Russia. However, the scenario that Russian president Vladimir Putin might order an invasion of the Baltic states, as in Crimea, to find out if Article 5 will be invoked would not be a beneficial strategic move. There are multinational battalions stationed in the Baltics, and the first call of the U.S. Secretary of Defense was to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. U.S. President Biden also expressed at the Munich Security Conference that Article 5 would be upheld. The U.S. will ensure that NATO members have a cohesive vision of security, so that actors like Putin know that there will be consequences - including on the economic and cyber defense levels - if there is a move against a NATO country.

Changing Leadership in Europe in 2021 and beyond

As German Chancellor for the past 16 years, Chancellor Angela Merkel helped create many watershed moments in Europe: Germany’s response to the refugee crisis in 2015, the cooperation on a stimulus package for the E.U. with French President Emmanuel Macron, and the management of the financial crisis in 2008-09. At the same time, Chancellor Merkel is seen more positively as a leader internationally than she is domestically in Germany, especially after the pandemic response. When Merkel steps down, the most prominent leaders in Europe will become French President Emmanuel Macron, up for election in 2022, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Marc Rutte, who was re-elected this year for the fourth time.

Another major political shift on both sides of the Atlantic is a rise in the popularity of Green Party issues, especially among younger generations. In Germany, the party polls at 16% to 20% in the national polls. The core issues of labor and industrial worker protections that center-left parties in Germany once focused on are giving way to the issues of climate change and a focus on diplomacy over militarism. These same priorities are gaining traction with younger voters in the United States, as well, with proposals like the “Green New Deal”, although the parliamentary pattern is different. The Green party has the potential to become a center-left people’s party in Germany.

In order to improve transatlantic relations, the speakers converged on the need to develop a unified transatlantic response to China. While the U.S. and Europe have disagreed on the comprehensive agreement on investment passed in the E.U., both agree on the need to confront the problems of forced technology transfers and human rights abuses. Beijing recognizes that the U.S. and Europe differ in their approaches and has undertaken a divide-and-rule strategy. However, the U.S. and Europe can work together to reform the World Trade Organization and develop global standards for emerging technologies. In the effort to revitalize the relationship between the U.S. and Europe, a “global West” may be created, not primarily as a geographic category, but as a cooperation based on the values of the world’s leading democracies.