Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble: European Realignment and the Future of American Geopolitics.”
By reaching an agreement on the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Washington appears to have favored its relationship with Berlin at the expense of its allies and partners to the east. Unsurprisingly, Central and Eastern European countries have been rattled by the move. Their concerns are valid. But paradoxically, the agreement could ultimately strengthen security in the region.
The agreement announced by U.S. and German negotiators last month marks the end of American efforts to block the pipeline. From Washington’s perspective, it amounts to a successful salvage operation: It’s likely Nord Stream 2 would have been completed despite American obstructionism. And by allowing the pipeline to be completed, the U.S. obtained some important commitments from Germany and took a major step toward restoring their relationship.
In exchange, Germany has committed to investing in alternative energy infrastructure in Ukraine, reimbursing the country for lost gas transit fees, helping Kyiv negotiate an extension of its gas transit contract with Moscow and pursuing sanctions against Russia if it uses oil and gas exports to Ukraine as political leverage.
Despite these commitments, Central and Eastern European allies are justifiably angered by the agreement. With good reason, they view Nord Stream 2 as a geopolitical weapon rather than a “purely commercial” project, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin maintains. Poland and the Baltic countries remain convinced the pipeline will facilitate even more aggressive behavior from Russia. And Kyiv fears that lack of Russian gas transiting its territory en route to high-paying customers in Europe will embolden Moscow.
It’s easy to see why Central and Eastern European governments think the United States has favored its relationship with Germany over them. And to some degree, they aren’t far off the mark.
Over the last decade, Germany has become the lynchpin of American security and foreign policy in Europe. Politically and economically, Germany is first among equals in Europe, with greater soft power than France, the United Kingdom, Italy or any other European country.
Despite the pandemic-induced recession, Germany supersedes all its neighbors in terms of long-term economic growth prospects. Policy choices made over the last decade and the willingness of German businesses to embrace — more so than virtually all other countries in Europe — advanced information technology, roboticization and other aspects of the fourth industrial revolution have placed it on a trajectory of improving productivity over the next decade.
Of course, Germany’s military capabilities and capacity still pale in comparison to France and the U.K. But this is likely to change over time as Berlin continues to expand its defense budget, while Paris and London face comparatively more challenging fiscal circumstances.
More importantly, however, for Washington, the Nord Stream 2 agreement removes a major impediment to an ever-closer international security partnership with Berlin.
The great power competition unfolding between the U.S. on the one hand and Russia and China on the other is most likely to manifest itself in hybrid terms — involving political, diplomatic, economic, informational and military challenges, below the level of tanks crossing borders. That means that a close partnership between Washington and Berlin is likely to pay long-term dividends to the benefit of not only Germany and the U.S. but Central and Eastern Europe as well.
These countries, compelled by geography to navigate a path between Germany and Russia, need Germany firmly grounded in the West — and the Nord Stream 2 arrangement will help make sure it remains so. The alternative, Washington’s unilateral sanctions on German businesses, only strengthened the voices of those in Berlin who favor a more ambivalent German policy toward great power competition — one that pursues an equal distance between the U.S. and Russia.
Furthermore, Russia is likely to never make use of Nord Stream 2’s full capacity; climate change and long-term trends in energy consumption across Europe away from fossil fuels and toward renewables will make sure of that. Over time, declining Russian gas sales in Europe will eventually reduce Ukraine’s role as an energy transit country in any case.
The Nord Stream 2 agreement won’t end Berlin’s pursuit of a special relationship with Moscow. Its political elites remain convinced that European security can only be achieved with Russia, not against it, and that interdependence with Russia benefits the West. But the agreement nonetheless represents a win for Washington, insofar as it has garnered commitments from Berlin that otherwise wouldn’t have been made.
And ultimately, as long as it helps ensure the powerful country to their West remains firmly anchored there, Central and Eastern European countries will also benefit from this agreement.