Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s trip to Washington was intended to serve as a reset button in the close, but strained U.S.-German relationship. The German foreign minister largely succeeded in this task. However, this was primarily due to rapidly evolving events in Ukraine, which are forcing the transatlantic community to focus on their bottom line.
The so-called NSA scandal, portrayed for months by many German politicians, including Steinmeier, as a breach of trust between close allies, will recede, as will the constant squabbling about the right economic policy mix in Germany and Europe. Those challenges will not disappear, but unless the crisis in Crimea can be defused quickly, they will merely represent an unpleasant background noise in the bilateral relationship.
More pressing priorities are already bringing Berlin and Washington closer together, as both the German and U.S. leaderships are struggling to find the right answer to Russian aggression in Crimea. Any hope to bring Russian president Vladimir Putin into the twenty-first century seems lost. In a widely publicized phone conversation between Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, the chancellor reportedly told the U.S. president about her doubts that Putin is still in touch with reality. Indeed, for now we are witnessing a powerful return to old school, ruthless power politics, reminiscent of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both Obama and Merkel are very reluctant to accept such logic. They are both politicians inclined to take time and contain a crisis rather than reverse it. The German chancellor has been very successful at patiently waiting for domestic and international opponents to implode. Putin is a rare exception.
Fears that Putin’s Russia may resort in Ukraine to methods deployed in the partial invasion of Georgia in 2008, have kept the foreign policy establishment busy for years. Indeed the script for the military intervention was already written. All it took for the Russian president was to wait for the excuse to execute the plan. Given the strategic importance of Crimea for Russia, any Western response needs to reflect the recognition that Moscow has interests in the region. However, given Putin’s track record, it also needs to make sure that the West is not perceived as weak.
Finding the right balance is where close coordination between Berlin and Washington is key. Steinmeier describes this crisis as the biggest challenge since the end of the Cold War. He had visited Washington as the German diplomat that contributed to the fall of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. He can and will play a crucial role in trying to defuse the crisis. But ultimately, he and Merkel can only succeed if President Obama remains fully engaged. This is not the kind of crisis that Europeans should try to solve on their own.