Olaf Scholz’s hard lessons in German leadership

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BERLIN — Chancellor Olaf Scholz is finding out the hard way that there’s a lot more to leading Germany than being an Angela Merkel tribute act.

Scholz meets Joe Biden at the White House on Monday as part of a US trip intended to repair the battering that Berlin’s reputation has taken on both sides of the Atlantic over the Ukraine crisis.

The 63-year-old former finance minister won Germany’s general election last fall by portraying himself as the natural successor to Merkel, stressing continuity with her steady-as-she-goes approach to politics at home and abroad and even adopting her trademark pensive hand gesture.

Yet after two months at the helm of a three-party coalition, the Social Democrat is under fire on multiple fronts, accused of failing to show leadership, sending muddled messages and taking too soft a line with Moscow in its showdown with Ukraine and the West .

Berlin’s decision not to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine, and its moves to block allies from sending arms as well, have incensed some allies, particularly in Eastern Europe. A reluctance to state clearly that the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be hit by sanctions if Moscow attacks Ukraine also angered many, particularly in Washington.

“Berlin, we have a problem,” Germany’s ambassador to the US, Emily Haber, wrote in a leaked diplomatic cable at the end of last month, warning that a growing number of politicians in Washington were branding Germany to “unreliable partners.” Haber even appeared on Fox News — not natural terrain for a career diplomat — as part of an effort to push back against the bad press.

Back home, the chancellor has been heavily criticized for being largely absent while his government got hammered by allies and international media for seemingly failing its first big foreign policy test.

Keenly aware that Germany relies heavily on the United States for its own security, Scholz will be under pressure in Washington to show that Europe’s economic powerhouse remains committed to the transatlantic alliance and to the leading place in international affairs it held under Merkel.

“Angela Merkel played for a long time an enormously important role in relations toward Russia and other Eastern European countries, but also Western partners. Those are very big footsteps, and the new government isn’t filling them yet,” said Sabine Fischer, a foreign policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“In the US, Scholz will be confronted with expectations from various sides to show a clearer position concerning Russia and Ukraine,” she added. “His government won’t be able to escape this pressure any longer.”

Scholz also wants to meet members of the US Congress and give a TV interview to CNN — the kind of public relations push that Merkel had no need to do on her recent visits to the United States.

As accusations mounted that he had gone AWOL in the middle of a crisis, Scholz popped up on German TV last week to insist that Berlin remained a reliable international partner.

“Our allies know exactly what they have in us,” he said, noting that Germany was a major troop provider for NATO and declaring that it was the biggest donor of financial aid to Ukraine in recent years, contributing almost €2 billion.

Scholz is also aiming to show Berlin can play an important role in the Ukraine crisis by traveling to Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15.

German officials note that Berlin has traditionally closer ties to Moscow than some other Western allies and argue these links could prove useful in defusing tensions over Ukraine. They also say their approach complements the more hawkish stance of other allies: While the US, Britain and others play bad cop, Berlin’s more low-key stance may offer a path to de-escalation.

communication ‘disaster’

Still, there is a broad recognition in Berlin that the government’s handling of the Ukraine crisis so far has been more than a little unfortunate.

Although Merkel previously also refused arms deliveries to Kyiv, that was amid an armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and not in the face of an immediate threat of a full-scale invasion by about 130,000 Russian soldiers. Nonetheless, Scholz’s government has categorically rejected Ukrainian requests for weapons deliveries, arguing that its historical responsibilities for past atrocities mean it should not ship weapons to conflict zones.

Critics, however, have noted that Germany has in recent years exported billions worth of military equipment to Egypt and Saudia Arabia, which was accused of human rights violations in the Yemen conflict. Moreover, in 2014 and 2016 Berlin also delivered rifles and anti-tank missiles to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to support them in their fight against the Islamic State.

An attempt by the government to quell some of the criticism by sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine backfired massively, with Berlin being derided internationally.

The message was meant to be that Germany was beginning to change its position. Previously, even deliveries of protective military equipment like helmets or vests had been rejected. But Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht’s declaration that the shipment was “a very clear signal” of support made Scholz’s government the target of mockery. “It was a disaster,” one official in Berlin admitted.

Michael Roth, MP for Scholz’s Social Democrats and the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said Berlin needed to do a better job of setting out its policy and the reasoning behind it.

“We must explain to our partners in a comprehensible way why we behave this way, and in how many ways we support Ukraine,” he said.

Christoph Heusgen, a former foreign and security policy adviser to Merkel, urged the new government to go even further and rethink its policy on weapon exports.

While he acknowledged a reluctance rooted in Germany’s World War II history to ship weapons to crisis zones, especially if they could end up killing Russians, he noted that Berlin was also delivering “state-of-the-art submarines” to Israel, citing historic responsibility as justification.

The same logic could be applied to Ukraine, which also suffered heavily from German atrocities during World War II, for example when German soldiers murdered over 30,000 Jewish Ukrainians in Babi Yar in 1941.

“This implies a special responsibility to Ukraine to ensure that an aggression against the country is not repeated. In my view, this obligation would be met by supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine,” said Heusgen, who will take over this year as chair of the Munich Security Conference, a major annual gathering of foreign policy and defense leaders.

reality check

Scholz’s ability to take a clear stance on Ukraine has also been hampered by domestic politics.

The new government is composed of three parties, of which two — Scholz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock — face rifts within their own ranks about how to deal with Russia and support for Ukraine.

The divisions are particularly strong within the SPD, where prominent politicians like secretary-general Kevin Kühnert and the head of the party’s parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, have voiced strong opposition to delivering arms to Ukraine.

Several SPD politicians, including Defense Minister Lambrecht, also spoke out strongly against including the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline in potential sanctions against Russia.

It took weeks of internal bickering before Scholz and the party publicly reaffirmed their commitment to a deal struck by Biden and Merkel last year that Nord Stream 2 would be on the line if Russia attacked Ukraine.

On Friday, it was announced that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, also from the SPD, has been nominated to join the board of directors at Gazprom, the state-owned Russian energy company behind Nord Stream 2.

Heusgen said Scholz’s visit to Washington should be a reality check for Germany, which could not count on the US to provide security for Europe forever but would have to do more itself to provide the stability that is crucial for its role as the world’s fourth-biggest economy.

“We have to be realistic about the fact that the US faces immense domestic challenges … and is at the same time stepping up its foreign policy efforts to address the most important and biggest challenge, and that is China,” he said.

“We would do well to, first of all, recognize this and at the same time to become more active with our foreign policy actions. We will have to assume more responsibility.”

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