The U.S. Doesn’t Know How to Treat Its Allies

If Biden wants to counter China, the U.S. needs to make some sacrifices.

Pipeline equipment
Carsten Koall / Getty

About the author: Kori Schake is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

President Joe Biden is promising the world that “America is back,” but his effort to reclaim global leadership shouldn’t come at the expense of the country’s closest friends. At a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sharply criticized Germany’s efforts to get more natural gas from Russia through a pipeline project known as Nord Stream 2. The president, Blinken warned, “believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States. Ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals.” Not only is the Biden administration continuing former President Donald Trump’s punitive policy against an important ally, but it’s considering further strictures.

Blinken’s statement also reflected a major defect in Obama-era foreign policy: the condescending assumption that other countries don’t understand their own interests. But the U.S. focus on stopping an energy project domestically important for Germany is all the more misguided when the administration’s strategy for managing America’s top security concern—the rise of China—is utterly dependent on a dramatic deepening of allied cooperation. Biden has a choice: Should he prioritize concern about Russia, a nettlesome but less important rival power, or should he consolidate support among America’s allies? And the administration is on the verge of choosing the wrong option.

European reliance on Russian energy resources is significant: EU countries import 30 percent of their crude oil, 40 percent of their natural gas, and 42 percent of their coal from Russia. But the U.S. opposition to Nord Stream 2 nevertheless feels atavistic, because European gas-market integration has defanged much of Russia’s ability to strong-arm other countries by threatening to cut off energy supplies.

Biden’s opposition to the pipeline has several justifications. The project will double existing gas capacity from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and thereby costing that country $3 billion in transit revenue. Our Central European allies vociferously object to Nord Stream 2, fearing long-term dependence on Russia—and German unwillingness to confront that threat. Now that the U.S. is a net energy exporter, it can offer a commercially advantageous American alternative: liquefied-natural-gas shipments to terminals in the Baltic states and Poland.

Congress is trying to undermine Nord Stream 2 as well, escalating secondary sanctions against companies that lay pipeline or provide insurance or certification of its construction. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas even bartered his hold on the nomination of Bill Burns as CIA director for promises to carry out the legislated sanctions, which the president has the option to waive.

Biden’s opposition to Nord Stream 2 is in many ways a reprise of President Ronald Reagan’s stand against the Siberian pipeline that the Soviet Union and Germany constructed in the 1980s. And Biden is likely to be no more successful in halting this project than Reagan was in his efforts: Nord Stream 2 is 95 percent complete, and Germany has been obdurate in ignoring objections from both the U.S. and its Central European neighbors for more than a decade. Germany, which is weaning itself off nuclear power, cares desperately about energy reliability and is rushing to find low-carbon sources.

To ask the German government to sacrifice its domestic goals would be hypocritical, given that Biden has prioritized the protection of U.S. markets in his own foreign policy. He has been unwilling to pay the political price of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a trade bloc that major American labor groups oppose—or expend the effort to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States nevertheless enforces against China. The U.S. expects other countries to make difficult domestic compromises without being willing to do it ourselves.

The controversy about Nord Stream 2 comes as the U.S. pushes Europeans for a more integrated allied approach to China. On the same trip that included the NATO meeting, Blinken made a big show of reviving the U.S.-EU dialogue on China. The United States has made considerable progress in persuading allies not to use Huawei equipment in their 5G systems. The European Union joined the U.S. in sanctions on China. The Biden administration’s objections to a proposed EU-China trade deal have helped prevent its ratification. Europeans are realizing that China’s repression in Xinjiang is offensive to their human-rights standards—and that Beijing’s indiscriminate retaliation for mild sanctions does not bode well. The EU is developing an Indo-Pacific strategy. Germany is even sending a warship to help patrol the South China Sea. This is the ideal moment for the U.S. and European democracies to build a common approach to managing China.

Having allies requires sacrifices grounded in common values; it does not mean that other democratic countries must in every case do what the United States wants. The Biden administration should compromise on Nord Stream 2, securing concessions that mollify Central Europe and Ukraine, and then let go of this outdated concern. Far from showing that “America is back,” our uncompromising stance impedes the deepening of allied cooperation for our more important problems.