Germany’s ‘invisible’ Chancellor visits Washington amid fierce criticism

BERLIN — A headline asked: “Where is Olaf Scholz? A popular magazine has poked fun at the German Chancellor’s ‘disappearing art’. And its ambassador in Washington wrote that Germany was increasingly seen as an unreliable ally in a leaked memo that went viral last week and began with the words: “Berlin, we have a problem “.

With the threat of war looming over Europe and tensions rising in the standoff with Russia over Ukraine, Scholz travels to Washington on Monday for his first meeting with President Biden since he took office. took office as Chancellor in December. High on his agenda: showing the world that Berlin is committed to the Western alliance – and, well, showing its face.

Less than two months after taking over from Angela Merkel, his towering and longtime predecessor, Mr. Scholz is drawing heavy criticism at home and abroad for his lack of leadership in one of the world’s biggest security crises. more serious in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

His government led by the Social Democrats, an untested three-party coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, has refused to send arms to Ukraine, most recently offering 5,000 helmets instead. And he was suspicious of the kind of sanctions that could be imposed in the event of a Russian invasion.

As for the chancellor, he has become visibly rare in recent weeks – so rare that the news magazine Der Spiegel described him as “almost invisible, inaudible”.

While President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy have been busy calling Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Scholz has so far neither picked up the phone in Moscow nor visited. He has not yet been to Kiev, Ukraine, either, and his visit to Washington, it should be noted, took almost two months to organize.

Last week, Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, sent a note to Berlin, warning of “tremendous” damage to Germany’s reputation. It was not just the news media, but many members of the US Congress who questioned Germany’s reliability, she reported. In the view of many Republicans, she wrote, Berlin is “in bed with Putin” in order to keep the gas flowing.

It didn’t help that since then Gerhard Schröder, a former German chancellor of Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, accused Ukraine of ‘shaking the saber’ and announced on Friday that he would join the board. of Gazprom, Russia’s largest energy company.

“Scholz’s central mission for his visit to Washington must be to restore Germany’s credibility,” said Thorsten Benner, founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

“This is not how Mr. Scholz envisioned his first trip to the United States as Chancellor,” Mr. Benner added. “But international security has never been at the top of its agenda.”

Mr. Scholz, 63, has been a familiar figure in German politics for more than two decades. He served as his party’s general secretary and mayor of the northern port city of Hamburg before serving in two Conservative-led governments under Ms Merkel, most recently as finance minister.

A longtime labor lawyer and social democrat, Mr Scholz narrowly won last fall’s election on a platform promising ‘respect’ for workers and a higher minimum wage, while pushing Germany on the path to a carbon-neutral future.

Foreign policy barely figured in his election campaign, but it came to dominate the first weeks of the new administration. Rarely has a German leader come to power with so many burning crises. As soon as Mr. Scholz took over from Mrs. Merkel in early December, he faced not just a resurgent pandemic, but a Russian president mobilizing troops to Ukraine’s borders.

“That wasn’t the plan,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office. “This is a government that has coalesced around an ambitious plan for industrial transformation, but the reality of a world in crisis has interfered with its plans.”

Of all the crises, the standoff with Russia has proven particularly uncomfortable for Mr. Scholz. Its social democrats have traditionally favored a policy of collaboration with Moscow. During the Cold War, Chancellor Willy Brandt designed “Ostpolitik”, a policy of rapprochement with Russia.

The last Social Democratic Chancellor, Mr. Schröder, is not only a close friend of Mr. Putin, he has also been an employee of various Russian energy companies since 2005, including Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, the two gas pipelines directly linking Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

It was only last week, after Mr Schröder’s comments on Ukraine, that Mr. Scholz felt compelled to publicly distance himself from the former Chancellor.

“There is only one chancellor, and that’s me,” he told public broadcaster ZDF.

His party’s divisions over Russia are one way of explaining why Mr. Scholz has been reluctant to take a bolder lead in the standoff with Russia, prompting some to lament his conservative predecessor’s loss of leadership.

Mr Scholz won the election last year mainly by convincing voters that he would look a lot like Mrs Merkel. Laconic, knowledgeable and refraining from any gesture of triumph, he not only learned to speak like the former chancellor, he even mimicked her body language, holding her hands together in her signature diamond shape.

But now that he leads the country, that is no longer enough. German voters are hungry for Mr. Scholz to reveal himself and are increasingly eager to know who he is and what he really stands for.

As the current crisis unfolds, Mr Scholz’s imitation of Ms Merkel is also becoming less and less convincing. She was discreet and studious, and often kept her work behind the scenes, but she was not invisible.

In the spring of 2014, after Mr Putin invaded Crimea, Mrs Merkel was on the phone with him almost every day. It was Berlin that united reluctant European neighbors behind costly sanctions and persuaded the distracted President Barack Obama to focus on a distant conflict.

By then, of course, Mrs Merkel had already been Chancellor for nine years and knew all the protagonists well.

“The crisis came very quickly for Scholz,” said Christoph Heusgen, a veteran diplomat and foreign policy adviser to Ms Merkel during the latest Ukraine crisis.

Mr. Scholz’s advisers were surprised by the level of criticism, saying that Mr. Scholz was simply doing what Mrs. Merkel had so often done: keep a low profile and keep people guessing while engaging in quiet diplomacy until until you get a result.

When Mr Scholz spoke out about the current crisis – calling Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline a “private sector project” before turning to the fact that “everything” was on the table – he was obviously recycling language that Ms. Merkel has used it before.

But given the escalating current crisis, that language is long outdated, analysts say.

“He learned the Merkel style too much,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund. “It’s Merkel-plus, and it doesn’t work in times of crisis.”

After facing growing criticism from Kyiv and other Eastern European capitals, Mr Scholz’s leadership is also increasingly being questioned at home.

In a recent Infratest Dimap poll, Mr Scholz’s personal approval rating fell 17 percentage points, to 43% from 60% in early January, the biggest drop for a Chancellor in post- war, according to the firm. Support for his Social Democrats fell to 22%, trailing the Conservatives for the first time since last year’s surprise election victory.

Mr. Scholz’s team announced that after his return from Washington, the Chancellor will move on to a busy schedule that he hopes will kick German diplomacy into high gear. Following his meeting with Mr. Biden, he will meet with Mr. Macron; Polish President Andrzej Duda; and the three leaders of the Baltic States. The following week, he will travel to Kyiv and Moscow, in that order.

Senior diplomats say it is high time for such a pivot, starting with Monday’s visit to the White House.

Mr. Scholz has an apparent center-left ally in Mr. Biden, who has so far refrained from publicly criticizing Berlin. Since President Bill Clinton’s second term, the White House and the German Chancellery have not been in the hands of center-left leaders, and despite all the hesitation on the German side, the two administrations have been in close contact throughout. long.

But patience is running out and Mr. Scholz will have to bring something to the table.

“There must be a visible sign of commitment to the alliance,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “That’s what other allies are doing: the Spanish, the Baltics, the Poles, the British – everyone has come up with something to bolster deterrence on the eastern flank.”

In a television interview ahead of his departure for the United States on Sunday, Scholz hinted that Germany might strengthen its military presence in Lithuania. He also mentioned the possibility of additional aerial patrols in Eastern and Central Europe.

As important as any material commitment may be, the words Mr. Scholz uses — or does not use — to publicly communicate that commitment.

“Perhaps for the first time he could mention Nord Stream 2 by name when talking about possible sanctions,” Kleine-Brockhoff said.

“He must state clearly that Germany understands the situation and will stand with its allies.”

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