German Chancellor Angela Merkel went on her last foreign trip, to see US President Joe Biden, but on the face of it, it seems that the meeting didn't go as well as planned.
In the public part of the encounter they said that they had “agreed to disagree” over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline but had agreed on joint climate action. Despite the importance of the meeting and also the amount of time they spent together very little else came out during the press conference. Oh yes. They also agreed that China was a problem, but they didn't say what they would do about it.
Maybe I’ve been doing this job too long and am becoming paranoid, but I have the strong impression these comments were just theatre and the actual substance of the meeting was very different.
Why were they talking about Nord Stream 2 in the first place? Biden has already conceded the construction of the pipeline is a fait accompli and it has already been finished. It should be fully operational by the end of August. So there was not much to negotiate on this issue.
Nevertheless, the “argument” with Merkel will serve a very useful purpose. Biden has a big problem with it domestically, as the energy lobby still wants to see it stopped so they can sell more LNG to the EU. By setting up Merkel as the bad guy that won’t budge on Nord Stream 2 Biden shields himself from attack by the energy lobby at home.
The climate co-operation was also a non-issue, as that is a given. The China problem is the big issue. America sees it as a rival. Germany sees it as a trade partner. But really, it is not that big of a problem for either in the sense that unlike Russia, it is not invading anyone or bumping off ex-spies living in the Home Counties or walking along Ku’Damm.
So the summit was a big nothing-burger. Only you know it wasn't. There has been a whole string of top-level meetings recently: the G7 in Cornwall, a Nato summit in Brussels and Merkel arrived straight from a long meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Berlin earlier this week.
That meeting had a very similar profile: the two leaders spent a lot of time together and there are a lot of major issues on the table: the war with Russia in the Donbas, Nord Stream 2 (again), and Kyiv’s very slow progress with reforms. But their joint press conference was equally meatless, almost completely devoid of substance.
Why was nothing said? For example, cybersecurity is top of the US agenda at the moment and is way up there for the Germans too, but it was not even mentioned yesterday.
So I strongly suspect a grand plan is being worked out.
Biden came to office saying “diplomacy is back!” And rapidly launched a European tour to talk over his plans with the other rich world leaders. His is an attempt to make the G7 relevant again in the face of the Rise of the Rest, who resent the G7’s 50 years of dominance. This is not necessarily going to be a conflict, as Germany is keen to go into business with China, but the G7 countries are not comfortable with the change and the situation is already pretty tense. Russia’s tie-up with China, for example, looks pretty ominous.
The ground work for a grand plan was probably broached at the G7 and Nato summits. Now everyone is getting into the details. Surely Biden laid out his position and Merkel was representing the EU. The plan needs to deal with Russia, China, Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Iran, cybersecurity, global warming, taxing multinational corporates, terrorism and a whole bunch of other stuff, but they are not talking about any of it yet, as none of it is ready. Biden has only been on the job for a bit more than five months, after all.
Now Merkel has been briefed by Biden and in turn has briefed him on Ukraine, her job will be to take whatever it was they agreed back to Brussels and sell it to the rest of Europe.
Or maybe they did just have a polite row about the completion of Nord Stream 2 and he gave her some flowers, wishing her a pleasant retirement. However, given this is Merkel we are talking about I strongly doubt it. Biden is no diplomatic slouch either.
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