U.S. officials are hopeful of developing a good working relationship with Germany's incoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz, whose new coalition government featuring the Social Democrats, the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats, has already indicated it will observe a longstanding nuclear sharing arrangement allowing the U.S. to continue to deploy 20 atomic bombs at an airbase in western Germany.
Since early on in the Cold War, Germany has allowed American tactical nuclear weapons to be based in the country, but the arrangement has been opposed by luminaries on the left among Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD). In their election manifestos, both the SPD and the Greens election programs condemned the basing of nuclear weapons in Germany.
The incoming coalition government's decision to continue with the nuclear arrangement has prompted a sigh of relief in Washington. Any abandonment of the arrangement would have complicated transatlantic security ties. And the coalition government's acceptance of the deal is being seen as a promising sign of how the relationship may develop between the new government and the Biden administration.
Scholz has gone out of his way to emphasize the significance of German-U.S. relations, calling the United States "Europe's closest and most important partner." As finance minister in the outgoing government of his predecessor, Angela Merkel, he forged close ties with Washington policymakers. There are likely to be bumps in the road, though, according to Western diplomats.
They note the 64,000-word agreement struck by the German coalition partners - the SPD, the Greens and the Free Democrats - makes no mention of Nord Stream 2, the recently completed undersea natural-gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany. The U.S. and some of Germany's eastern European neighbors want Germany to abandon the pipeline - and so do Germany's Greens - but SPD insiders tell VOA it is highly unlikely Scholz will do so.
If he decides to continue with Merkel's policy and not to abandon the pipeline, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Congress are likely to redouble their pressure on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on businesses involved with the pipeline, say analysts.
President Joe Biden waived Nord Stream sanctions earlier this year, a few months before the $11 billion pipeline was finished, on the grounds its completion was a "fait accompli." His decision drew criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, but U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sought to assuage congressional critics saying the Biden administration would respond, if the Kremlin seeks to leverage gas exports as a political weapon.
Successive American administrations have opposed the building of Nord Stream 2, fearing it will deepen Europe's energy dependence on Russia, as well as allow Russia to bypass Ukraine when it supplies energy to western European markets, depriving Kyiv of much needed transit fees.
The leaders of Germany's three-party coalition formally signed a governing agreement Tuesday. The move came a day after the Greens voted to approve the deal, the last party to do so. Scholz is due to be sworn in later this week, marking the start of the post-Merkel era.
German Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz, SPD, right, and Economy and Climate Minister-designate Robert Habeck, Greens, center, chat while Finance Minister-designate Christian Lindner, FDP, signs a coalition deal in Berlin, Dec. 7, 2021.
Coalition party leaders held a press conference in Berlin just hours before President Biden and Russia's Vladimir Putin were set to hold a critical discussion amid rising tensions over a massive Russian military buildup along its border with Ukraine. Scholz was pressed to clarify his foreign policy aims and said his first overseas trip as chancellor will be to Paris and then Brussels - a signal of his government's intentions to ensure "Europe is strong and sovereign," he said.
Scholz also emphasized the importance of transatlantic cooperation, saying he soon would be talking with President Biden. "It is now clear what binds us together," Scholz said. On the Russian troop buildup, the incoming chancellor said it must be made "very, very clear" to Russia that threats to Ukraine would be unacceptable. But he did not detail how Germany would respond to any new Russian military action in Ukraine.
Asked about what policy he intended to pursue toward China, he answered only by saying his immediate priorities would be working with the EU and the U.S. Some analysts predict Scholz is likely to continue with Merkel's approach toward China. Merkel was the driving force behind the signing last December of an EU-China agreement on investment and trade that caused unease in Washington.
Critics of the deal said it would give China preferential access to European markets while Beijing continued to tamp down Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and maintain detention centers in Xinjiang province, where China's Communist government has interned more than a million Uighurs, according to rights groups. Though signed, the European Parliament has not voted on the agreement amid rising tensions between the EU and China.
Some diplomats don't expect Scholz to significantly change course from Merkel when it comes to China, arguing the German business lobby is strong and the country's export-driven economy needs to be exporting to China. But other European diplomats tell VOA that with China becoming increasingly assertive, they suspect Scholz will have little alternative but to adopt a more muscular policy regarding Beijing.
Scholz appeared to signal that last month, when, during a press conference in Berlin, he highlighted his eagerness to pursue a values-driven foreign policy. "That which makes us who we are, that we are democracies, that we stand for freedom and the rule of law, will of course play a role, because we are particularly connected with some countries, especially the United States, because these values have shaped us," he said.
How Germany responds in coming days toward an increasingly bellicose Russia will be an early indicator of what kind of foreign policy leader Scholz will be, say analysts. Putin may have decided to time the Russian military buildup to coincide with Germany's political transition, according to Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, a research group in New York. "Putin may think this is the right moment to act, with Germany going through a political transition and with France heading toward an election," he told VOA recently.
But if the Russian leader thinks he can bank on Berlin being distracted, that might be a miscalculation, Haddad underscores. He says the new center-left German government led by Scholz will "want to show it can be a good transatlantic partner."