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How Germany's new foreign policy may differ from Merkel's government


Germany's new leader takes office during a busy time. Olaf Scholz takes office this week, replacing Angela Merkel, amid a potential crisis in Europe. Russia is massing troops on the border with Ukraine. President Biden holds a video call today with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Germany is a close ally of the United States and also a customer of Russian energy. A giant pipeline runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Rachel Rizzo studies Germany from her post at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

RACHEL RIZZO: So one of the most pressing foreign policy issues between the United States and Germany, especially over the last few months, has been the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia, under the Baltic Sea, directly to Germany. Now, the U.S. strongly opposes this pipeline. It always has. But the Biden administration hasn't gone so far as to say that they'll sanction German companies so that this pipeline doesn't actually get finished. And in fact, Republican senators like Ted Cruz are still holding up Biden's ambassadorial nominees over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. So this has really been a source of tension in U.S.-German relations and U.S.-Russia relations as well.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that we're clear on this. You're saying that some U.S. senators are pressuring the Biden administration to pressure Germany to pressure Russia.

RIZZO: Yes, that's exactly what's happening. Some Republican senators basically said, we're not going to call for votes on your ambassadorial nominees until you agree to put enough sanctions on both Russian and German companies that this pipeline gets stopped. The Biden administration hasn't done that yet, hasn't sanctioned German companies. I don't think it will. And so this has just been a consistent source of tension and annoyance for the Biden administration.

INSKEEP: Why doesn't President Biden want to sanction Germany?

RIZZO: Well, I think if you look at the last four years of German-U.S. relations, they really went down the drain. The Trump administration was very critical of Germany and Angela Merkel in particular. They attacked Germany constantly for not spending enough of its GDP on defense spending, in line with NATO targets. They implemented steel and aluminum tariffs against the EU that was, you know, partially driven by Germany. And so the Biden administration came in and really wanted to repair the U.S.-German relationship because it really is the strongest one in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

INSKEEP: Olaf Scholz, the new chancellor who's taking office this week, from what you've seen and what you've heard of him, does he think that he can deal with Vladimir Putin?

RIZZO: I think so. He didn't run on a platform of drastically transforming German foreign policy. Merkel was criticized, I think, for not toeing a tough-enough line on countries like China and Russia. And so after 16 years of conservative rule, he has big shoes to fill, and he's going to want to come out of the gate showing a sense of strength. What that actually looks like in terms of standing up to China or standing up to Russia is yet to be seen. But I could see this incoming government using multilateral institutions like the EU and like NATO to toe a tougher line.

INSKEEP: You've said that President Biden wants to reset the relationship between the United States and Germany. Does Germany's new chancellor think that the Biden administration can be a reliable partner and that anything they do will last?

RIZZO: Well, I think this is one of the most important questions of this current U.S. administration. I think the last four years really created heavy tensions in the trans-Atlantic relationship because it made our allies wonder, you know, if they are agreeing to, you know, say, the Iran deal with the United States and then a new administration comes in and tears it up. And so I think the next six months are really going to set the stage for what U.S.-German relations look like for the next three, four or five years. But I do think one of the focuses of this administration has been to ensure that our allies can trust us again, can trust the United States again. And I think it's working, but we'll have to wait and see where it actually goes from here more long term.

INSKEEP: Rachel Rizzo of the Atlantic Council's Europe Center. Thanks so much.

RIZZO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.