High-stakes global drama is unfolding on the seabed beneath the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. It is shaping up as the biggest clash between Europe and the United States since the end of World War II.
This underwater confrontation foreshadows the coming century. European countries are steadily less subservient to Washington. They see their future elsewhere.
The project that threatens to cause this crackup is a gas pipeline. There may have been a time when laying pipelines was a straightforward matter that concerned only surveyors, but today, pipeline routes shape the global economy and world politics. That’s why the battle over this one has become so intense. It would bring natural gas from rich fields in Russia to energy-hungry Germany. Both countries consider it a good deal.
The United States disagrees. A pipeline connecting Russia and Germany would indeed benefit both countries. There’s the rub: Many in Washington bitterly oppose anything that would benefit Russia.
Two far-reaching questions must soon be answered. First: Will Biden lead the United States into direct confrontation with Germany, one of our closest allies? Second: If he does demand that Germany abandon its pipeline project, will Germany bend to our will? It is a historic test.
If the United States can force Germany to abandon an $11 billion project that is more than 90 percent complete, it will show that we still have the power and will to shape Europe. If, on the other hand, Germany resists our pressure and completes the pipeline, that would be an act of defiance unprecedented in postwar history. Either way, the prospect of such direct confrontation between these two longtime allies is shocking.
In Congress, anti-Russia emotion is intense, and the pipeline has become a hot-button issue. This month 40 Republican senators sent a letter to President Biden expressing “deep concern” about his hesitancy to crack down on Germany. Senator Ted Cruz, who has warned of the project’s “catastrophic implications,” went further. He said he will seek to block confirmation of three of Biden’s nominees to senior national security positions, including William Burns, named to head the Central Intelligence Agency, until the Biden Administration agrees to “sanction the ships and companies building Putin’s pipeline.”
Our official argument against the 765-mile pipeline is that control over Germany’s gas supply would allow Russia to influence German politics. Gas, however, is not Washington’s true concern. What we really fear is that Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, may one day make its peace with Russia. That would clash with American policy, which is based on the premise that Russia is a threatening enemy and must be resolutely confronted. Germany, it follows, must be brought back into line.
At any time over the last 75 years, doing that would have been easy. The United States, through the NATO alliance, has traditionally set European security policy and dictated to allies on important matters. That obedience reflex is now weakening. Donald Trump’s attacks on European leaders and institutions opened a breach that will never be fully repaired. Europeans are seeking stronger ties to Russia and China, often against Washington’s will. They sense that their future partners will be in Eurasia rather than across the Atlantic.
The US Treasury Department has warned that any company connected to the pipeline project, ranging from shippers to insurers to dock operators, may now be banned from dealing with American companies. Under “secondary sanctions,” even firms doing business with those companies could be sanctioned. About 120 companies from 12 European countries now face this threat. At least 18 have quit the project. Work stopped for a year but recently started again — with a Russian vessel laying the last 100 miles of pipe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared in 2018 that it was time for Europe to “take its destiny in its own hands,” insists that the project will be finished. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany could not be expected “to do everything the way Washington wants.” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that killing the pipeline project would be burning “one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe” and added: “I do not believe that burning bridges is a sign of strength.”
Biden has called the pipeline “a bad deal for Europe,” but he may be seeking a compromise to avert a Berlin-Washington collision. Congress has given him leeway in imposing sanctions, and none were included in a list of new sanctions issued in February. That set off a wave of outrage. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Jim Risch called the pipeline a “dangerous project.” Senator Tom Cotton summarized the opposition succinctly: “If you are serious about imposing costs on Putin, sanction any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”
Biden should resist that misguided clamor. He should recognize that when two foreign countries make a deal — especially when one is governed by his old friend Merkel — that’s their business and we should not interfere. Beyond that, he should not reflexively oppose every project that promises some benefit to Russia. On the contrary, we should seek avenues for cooperation even while pressing our own concerns.
That, however, is nearly a heretical view in today’s Washington. We want Europeans to make no compromise with Russia — and to build no pipeline. Germany seems determined to proceed anyway. It is Europe’s boldest-ever rebellion against American power.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.