Berlin, Warsaw, and Washington: Getting the Band Back Together

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Joe Biden on April 14, 2023. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The European Union is an important player in the transatlantic community, but what holds the alliance together is security and foreign policy. These are not core EU competencies. Bilateral relations are the sinews of the alliance.  

In Europe, few relationships are more important than that between Germany and Poland. Yet this relationship is troubled. Fixing it would be a boon to the whole community. Right now, the prospects for that are dim. Something must change. 

An Alliance of Anxiety 

Germany and Poland are important bridges between new and old Europe. The U.S, works well with both of them, but political divisions between Berlin and Warsaw are deep and serious. To meet serious challenges like China and Russia, all three nations must work well together. 

German leaders acknowledge that their Russia policy was a mistake and ended in failure. Some even admit that it contributed to bringing war to Europe. That error greatly reduced Warsaw’s trust in Berlin. Trust was further undercut by how slowly Germany moved to aid Ukraine. Germany has now increased its support for Ukraine, but it can and should do more.  

For its part, Berlin opposes Warsaw’s sovereigntist approach to the EU, criticizes the current government for backsliding on democracy, particularly over its judiciary, and is seriously annoyed by Warsaw’s 1.3 trillion euros reparations claim for damages incurred during the Nazi occupation. The mutual distrust is not just between capitals; it is spilling over into disputes at the EU level in Brussels as well.  

For its part, the Biden administration seems like a passive third partner. The White House favors a Europe led by Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. However, it has put Warsaw’s “democratic backsliding” issue on the backburner for now because Poland (along with Romania and others) has emerged as an indispensable ally in Ukraine. After the war ends, however, the Administration’s fixation on the “backsliding” could well resurface, especially since the charge pairs well with the White House caricature of its political opposition in the U.S.  

Berlin and Washington seem content to sit on their hands until the Polish parliamentary elections this autumn, hoping the current conservative government will be ousted by an opposition that will be close to Berlin and Brussels and fix rule of law issues. The problem with that stance is twofold.  

First: It may not happen. While the Polish government faces opposition stronger than it has been for some time, polls show it is leading in its fight for an unprecedented third term. If the current government wins again, it is more likely to try to cement partnerships with other center-right governments in Europe than to patch things up with Germany. Berlin seems to have no “Plan B” for dealing with the Poland that is, rather than the one it wants.  

Second: Even if the opposition wins, swapping governments will likely only sweep problems under the rug. The differences between Poland and Germany impact core national interests on both sides that may submerge but will not disappear.  

This creates a conundrum for Washington. Neither Paris nor Berlin has a firm grasp on leadership of Europe, let alone their own national policies. Germany, for example, has announced a bold new path: Zeitenwende.But it is a rocky road. It may take years for Chancellor Scholz and President Macron to sort themselves out, and even those who think Europe can be dealt with primarily through Brussels, Berlin, and Paris will find that leadership by the EU or the German-French “engine” will go only so far.  

The U.S. cannot pretend this is all working swimmingly, nor can it wait for Scholz and Macron to resolve their relationship. U.S. interests demand stronger transatlantic ties, yet the administration’s preference for centrist or, better, center-left governments does not necessarily advance those interests because many of our closest allies, friends, and partners are center-right in orientation. 

Time for Action 

There is one major issue where U.S., German and Polish efforts align: Ukraine.  

A free, stable, secure, prospering pro-Western Ukraine will be a substantial checkmate to Russia’s destabilizing activities against the West. It will also enable Europe to give more attention to addressing threats from the South and elsewhere. Moreover, a stable Europe will allow the United States to focus on building up its military capacity in Asia to respond to the China threat.  

There is always the risk that the war can be won and the peace can be lost. To avoid losing the peace, the transatlantic community must address four key issues regarding Ukraine’s future: 1) NATO membership, 2) EU membership, 3) security assistance so Ukraine can defend itself, and 4) reconstruction so Ukraine can succeed as a state.  

One and two will not happen in the short-term, nor will they impact the situation on the ground. The future of Ukraine will hinge on security assistance to build and maintain a strong conventional deterrent and reconstruction that makes Ukraine a functioning state and not an aid-dependent basket case.   

Not only are these tasks vital, they are probably the only policies where there will be workable transatlantic consensus for a path forward, at least for now. Security assistance and reconstruction are the most feasible lowest common denominator options—that’s where everyone is likely to land.  

Some in Berlin, Washington and elsewhere may think that when the war winds down the world can return to business as usual with Moscow. The likelihood of that is zero if Putin remains in power. And even if Putin goes, relations with Russia may well worsen. 

The war has driven Russia closer to China, but as a junior partner. Win, lose, or draw, China is likely to press Russia for policies that advance Beijing’s interests in Europe—and that will not be constructive. The transatlantic community will have a Russia-China problem for a long time. A successful Ukraine will help mitigate that challenge. 

Closer cooperation and coordination among Washington, Berlin, and Warsaw would make these essential tasks significantly more likely to succeed.  

A Sensible Agenda 

Security assistance must be a NATO-led project. Here, the joint leadership of Germany, Poland and the U.S. would be hugely influential. 

Reconstruction should be ma project led by the G7 plus. That “plus” must include Poland. The U.S. and Germany ought to encourage and support that. 

There is also a huge role for the private sector in Ukraine reconstruction—and this includes not just projects there, but projects that connect Ukraine to the rest of Europe. One potential vehicle is the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), a joint project of North, Central, and Southern European countries to harness private sector investments to build north-south infrastructure and connectivity. This could be an important instrument for reconstruction, building transport, digital, and energy links to Ukraine. Ukraine is already a partner nation in the 3SI. To date, however, the Biden administration’s approach to 3SI has been anemic; it does not appear to grasp its potential for mobilizing private sector capital. 

There are number of ways the initiative could be used enhance U.S.-Polish-German relations. For one, they could advocate for investing frozen Russian assets in projects that would benefit Ukraine (both in the country and connecting to the country). In turn, profits from these investments could be placed in a restitution fund for Ukrainians—a double win. 

If the Polish government wins reelection, Germany should make a powerful gesture of constructive goodwill. By making a sizable, post-election 3SI pledge, Berlin could get the “reparations” issue off the table and give the Polish government an off-ramp.  

Bigger than Berlin 

In the end, the success of trilateral cooperation has greater implications beyond Ukraine. The U.S. has many partners in Europe that are more than willing to do their fair share to strengthen the transatlantic community. We should work with them, using partnerships to build out the circle of trust and cooperation.  

This effort will also help with the challenge of China. As nations grapple with mitigating China’s malign and destabilizing influence, the only practical response demands is to find more and better ways to work with each other

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