For Chancellor Scholz, US President Biden is not only the most powerful ally, but also a brother in spirit. But how close is the political friendship really?
There is something mysterious about this trip to Washington. The brand new government plane “Konrad Adenauer” is pretty empty when it takes off from Berlin in the early Thursday evening towards the US capital. As usual, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has his closest employees from the Chancellery with him and, of course, his security forces. Journalists, usually around 25, are not allowed to come this time – very unusual for such an important travel destination. Business people aren’t there either. So the chancellor wants to be left alone.
At the airport in Washington, Scholz was received by the chief of protocol, the US diplomat Rufus Gifford. This is called a silent arrival. Nothing official is planned for the evening. Scholz only has one official appointment on this trip: a private conversation with US President Joe Biden on Friday in the White House – without the usual press conference that follows. There will only be pictures of the two from the beginning of the conversation in the Oval Office, the President’s study.
Biden avoided Berlin last week
It is a very confidential visit, the results of which will probably not be known much afterwards. Main topic: The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Actually, the conversation could have taken place last week when Biden visited Ukraine and Poland. However, the US President only made a short stopover at the Ramstein Air Force Base in Rhineland-Palatinate. Scholz has to wait for Biden’s first visit to Berlin since he was sworn in a good two years ago.
Conversely, the chancellor is now in Washington for the second time in the 15 months since he took office. “It is an expression of the quality of transatlantic relations and also of the good cooperation between the American President and the German Chancellor that we exchange ideas and talk very often,” he said before departure.
Brothers in spirit: Unspectacular, level-headed, result-oriented
For Scholz, it’s not just a visit to his most powerful ally, but also to a political friend whom he sees as a brother in spirit. When Scholz talks about Biden, he almost goes into raptures. There is no one on the international stage whose political style suits him as well as the 80-year-old US President: unspectacular, but also calm, level-headed and, above all, result-oriented.
In dealing with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, Biden has become something of a leading figure for Scholz. When the chancellor says he doesn’t want to go it alone in supplying arms, what he means above all is: Not without the Americans. This was the case with the delivery of multiple rocket launchers, with the Patriot air defense systems and with the armored personnel carriers. With the main battle tanks, however, things did not go quite so smoothly and amicably.
Message from Biden adviser before visit
At the end of January, Scholz and Biden announced almost synchronously that Germany would deliver Leopard 2 and the USA their Abrams to Ukraine. The US President thanked the Chancellor for his “strong leadership” and “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine. But even then there were reports that Scholz had made the delivery of the Abrams a condition of his Leopard commitment. The chancellor’s office denied that. Biden, whose defense ministry had previously classified the deployment of Abrams in Ukraine as impractical, asserted that he had not been “forced” to agree.
But shortly before the chancellor’s visit to the White House, Biden’s security advisor Jake Sullivan spoke up in a television interview with the surprising statement that such a connection had existed after all. In the interests of “alliance unity” and “to ensure Ukraine gets what it wants,” Biden agreed to the long-term supply of Abrams tanks — although they are not what Ukraine needs militarily at the moment.
The timing of Sullivan’s testimony and the chosen format give the impression that the US government wanted to send a message to the addressee Scholz. It is also quite possible that they want to lower expectations for Abrams tanks – both in terms of their timely delivery and their performance on the battlefield.
Conflict issue US investment program
There is another issue that currently harbors the potential for conflict between the USA and Germany. Biden launched a multi-billion dollar US investment program last summer. It provides for investments in climate protection, but ties many subsidies and tax credits to companies using US products or producing them themselves in the USA. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is an important domestic political success for the US President.
In Berlin and Europe, however, Biden’s “Made in America” approach is not so well received. The concern about competitive disadvantages is great. In a government statement at the beginning of February, Scholz called for the USA to make concessions and warned of a subsidy race. Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) and his French colleague Bruno Le Maire campaigned in Washington at about the same time for a Europe-friendly application of the law, but returned without any concrete commitments.
“What is actually the meaning and purpose of this renewed journey?”
The opposition in Berlin is also concerned with the outcome of this trip. “What is the meaning and purpose of this renewed trip,” asked the CDU/CSU parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz on Thursday in the Bundestag. “You are neither prepared with what you told us here today, nor are you taking journalists with you, nor have you prepared a final communiqué there.”
At the start of the conversation in the Oval Office, you will probably only hear a few warm words from both of them. Just like a year ago, when Scholz visited the US President for the first time, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the time, Scholz was accused in the United States of holding onto the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, even though Russian troops had already deployed on the border with Ukraine. Biden nevertheless backed the chancellor: “Germany is one of America’s closest allies,” he said at the start of the conversation.
CNN interview instead of press conference
At that time there was then the usual joint press conference and on top of that a television interview by the Chancellor on the US broadcaster CNN. The latter is also available this time, with journalist Fareed Zakaria. But Scholz shouldn’t divulge secrets from the conversation with Biden either.