Tuesday September 26, 2023

The Scholz-Biden meeting

March 07, 2023

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s meeting with US President Joe Biden in the White House last Friday, for obvious reasons, did not catch global media attention.

It was not expected to fetch the flashy headlines, but nobody predicted such a bland meeting between the heads of state of the superpower and the world’s largest economy and Europe’s largest military and economic powerhouse – and that too on the heels of the anniversary of Europe’s bloodiest post World War conflict.

The last few weeks have witnessed too much diplomatic squall in the global arena on the Ukraine war: Zelensky made dramatic dashes to Washington and key European capitals, while Biden made a sensational surprise trip to Kyiv to support the Ukrainian president. But, unlike those glamourized visits, Scholz went to Washington on a ‘working trip’ with a relatively very mild agenda that was primarily focused on supporting Ukraine against Russia and finding ways to enhance Western unity.

Devoid of ceremonial pomp and flurry, the working visit was more symbolic in nature without involving any routine MOUs or agreements signing ceremonies. Chancellor Scholz, who was barely in office for two months when the Russians troops entered Ukrainian territory last year, has been criticized by his detractors for his inability to assume the European leadership role vacated by Angela Merkel’s departure in the last one year. This trip was considered very crucial in terms of his efforts to regain the momentum for the German leadership of the European continent.

President Biden very poignantly lauded Scholz as: “You stepped up and provided critical military support and you know, I would argue that beyond your military support, the moral support you gave to Ukrainians has been profound. And you’ve driven historic changes at home – increase in defence spending and diversifying away from Russian energy sources – I know that has not been easy, very difficult for you.”

This actually encapsulates the political journey of Scholz in the last one year. There is no doubt that, after Merkel’s exit, German diplomacy has been witnessing a gradual erosion of its influence and Scholz has been projected by the media as a phlegmatic leader who takes decisions only when pressured to do so. Many examples are cited to validate this point, particularly the delayed decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a highly significant speech in modern German history a year ago, where he overturned Germany's post-Cold War strategic thinking. In this speech which was made in the Bundestag three days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Scholz referred to the Ukraine war as a "Zeitenwende", meaning a significant, tectonic shift. He promised to bring about a paradigm shift in Germany's foreign and defence policies as a response. He has certainly moved in this direction, particularly in the domain of defence spending, but so far the progress is very sluggish.

After taking charge, Scholz pledged to exceed the longstanding Nato target of spending at least two per cent of Germany's gross domestic product on military expenses. In addition, he also announced the establishment of a Euro100 billion investment fund, twice the size of the annual defence budget, for the Bundeswehr (armed forces). Although a third of the fund has already been allocated for new weapons purchase, not a single penny of the Euro100 billion has yet been expended for the defined segments. Some observers attribute this delay to former defence minister Christine Lambrecht, who was retained by Scholz despite indications of procrastination, until being replaced by Pistorius in January this year, who has since restored some sense of direction and vigor to the beleaguered ministry.

The German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, is widely acknowledged for having invigorated the ministry following the departure of Lambrecht. Similarly, Scholz is being seriously criticized for his exceedingly delayed ‘yes’ to send German tanks to Ukraine. After months of persistent requests and diplomatic pressure, Scholz yielded in late January and declared his intention to dispatch 14 Leopard main battle tanks to Kyiv, with other countries that possess German-made tanks also offering theirs. However, Berlin acted only after receiving assurances from the US that it, too, would furnish tanks, despite initially refusing to do so.

Scholz was initially hesitant to make a bold move and kept on waiting for Washington’s decision to make a similar move. However, he is being credited for his efforts to wean Germany off its inordinate dependence on Russian energy supplies. With remarkable speed, Germany has managed to reduce its dependence on Russian energy by constructing new terminals for liquefied natural gas imports, amassing gas reserves, and identifying alternative providers.

Interestingly, Scholz, who is facing growing protests at home against giving more weapons to Ukraine, is the only European leader asking his colleagues to desist from ‘outcompeting’ each other on providing weapons to Ukraine irrationally. By agreeing to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, Scholz has made a momentous decision in recent German political history which is also a testament to the country's willingness to engage in foreign military intervention, which was previously hampered by post-war hesitancy.

The Scholz-Biden meeting did not add anything new to the ongoing Western support to Ukraine but has given some plus points to Scholz in his bid to gradually make Germany the nucleus of European unity. Ironically, amid souring Sino-US ties, Scholz was the first European leader who went to Beijing, which also reflects his tendencies to develop his independent global perspective, away from the dictates of the White House, to strike a pragmatic balance in Germany’s foreign policy.

He is also among the select few European leaders who have still kept phone contact with Vladimir Putin intact. Perhaps he also predicts that eventually Germany will have to play a weighty role when the Ukraine conflict will eventually move its settlement through the diplomatic channels.

The writer is a freelance contributor.