America First Means America Alone
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that individuals associated with a major gas pipeline being built underwater from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, could be subject to sanctions. This move is intended to be punitive toward Russia, but it could have serious repercussions on the U.S. relationship with Germany.
Nord Stream 2 has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between the United States and Germany for past several years. The United States wants to contain Russia, and the pipeline helps Russia financially; the production of energy is Russia’s largest source of revenue. The Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom is leading the new pipeline project, as it led the Nord Stream 1 underwater pipeline project a decade ago. The more gas that Europe imports from Russia, the more dominant Russia becomes in European energy markets, and the more dependent Europe becomes on Russia. In these two ways—by making Germany, and Europe more generally, more dependent on Russia and by further enriching Russia—the Nord Stream 2 project is threatening to U.S. interests in Europe and to international security.
In 2017, in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, Congress passed and President Trump signed—apparently reluctantly—legislation that would permit sanctions on people who in various ways aid the Nord Stream project. The sanctions were never actually implemented, but, with Pompeo’s announcement, that is likely to change.
Meanwhile, for its part, Germany is incredibly fuel-thirsty. Germany relies on imports for more than half of its energy consumption, and since the country is trying to walk away from its highly polluting coal, natural gas is a the major alternative. (The United States has been making a similar shift for several years.) With almost no gas reserve, 94 percent of German natural gas consumption comes from imports. This creates complications, as the three countries with the largest natural gas reserves are Russia, Iran, and Qatar. Russia and Iran are targets of U.S. sanctions, and Qatar, although not sanctioned by the United States, is a state sponsor of terrorism (although the Department of State has not designated it as such).
Although the Trump administration policy objective of stymieing the Nord Stream 2 project is the right one, it is being executed incompetently.
For starters, the sanctions news is coming on top of the politically charged Trump administration plan to withdraw troops from Germany. Apparently, when it comes to this close U.S. ally, the administration is all sticks and no carrots.
What has brought the United States to this point? To begin with, for the first year and a half of the administration, there was no ambassador to Germany. Things got worse when the next two years were spent by having Richard Grenell in that position. Early into his tenure, Grenell gave an interview to the alt-right website, Breitbart, openly talking about his desire to empower far-right parties against incumbents, which, of course, didn’t play well with Angela Merkel’s government.
The Trump administration’s unilateralism has not helped, either. The administration has not given an inch on many of its European allies’ requests: policy towards Iran, the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that the Trump administration abandoned, or the imposition of tariffs on European, including German, imports. This maximalist approach has left no room for compromise or goodwill. Add to all that the president’s public hostility against allies and NATO.
Moreover, Germany has a legitimate need for natural gas imports. There is a simple solution, however. The United States is a net energy exporter, thanks to the invention of fracking, and possesses the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserve. It could replace Russia as a provider of natural gas to Europe (including Germany). There has been a significant increase in the U.S. export of liquid natural gas to Europe over the past year, but as of now none of this export will arrive in Germany until 2022. If the United States wants less Russian gas in Germany, it should invest more in exporting its own and spend more to make it happen sooner, even if it means at a subsidized price, so it would phase out Russian imports faster. This might not be economically ideal, but it is an investment in national and international security.
The Trump administration cannot continue with its sledgehammer approach to alliance management—mistreating allies, threatening them with punishments, never give a hearing to their requests—and keep on expecting full loyalty. The president’s America First slogan was his claim that Americans need to put our interest ahead of the interests of others (as though we were not already doing that). Then why are they upset when the Germans do the same? Despite what H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn said in the early months of the administration, America First does mean America alone.