German Foreign Policy Reversal German Economy Minister Celebrated in Washington

On Tuesday, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck became the first member of the German cabinet to visit Washington following Berlin's massive foreign policy shift on Russia. He was welcomed with open arms.
By Gerald Traufetter in Washington, D.C.
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck in front of the White House during his visit to Washington on Tuesday

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck in front of the White House during his visit to Washington on Tuesday

Foto: Britta Pedersen / dpa

Robert Habeck looked just as he usually does on Tuesday, with his stubble beard and mussed hair. And as usual, he was wearing his blue North Face parka, as if he had just returned from a hike.

But on this clear, late winter morning, he strode in front of the White House toward the waiting cameras with deliberate steps. Habeck, the German economy minister, eschewed the casual remarks and boyish smile he often deploys to win over the waiting journalists at moments like this.

Instead, he was deadly serious. "I’m in the U.S. for a special visit in the middle of a war in Europe," said Habeck, who is also Germany’s vice chancellor. "I am far away, on another continent, and yet the war is still ever-present.”

During his trip to the U.S. capital, his shift to a more serious, statesmanlike demeanor was on full display, the traces of a dramatic shift in world politics triggered by the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. And they are the result of what is arguably the most radical change of course  undertaken by Germany in decades.

Hardly 48 hours had passed since the momentous weekend when this shift took place. As a key member of Germany's governing coalition, Habeck, a member of the Green Party, is one of the most important architects of this transformation. And he seems to have found his new role - if not in appearance, then certainly in his elocution.

He spoke of Putin and a desperation that is driving the Russian leader to bomb innocent civilians in Ukraine, and he wished the people in besieged Kiev and Kharkiv all the strength they can muster. He spoke of the rediscovered partnership between the United States and Germany, and of the two countries' joint response to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression.

Habeck is the first top German politician to come to Washington after Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a change of course  on Sunday in a speech to the German parliament, after the scrapping  of the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russian to Germany, and after the chancellor's announcement that Germany would supply weapons to Ukraine and allocate 100 billion euros in additional funding to the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Amazement and Great Relief

All of this was met with astonishment and great relief in Washington. On Tuesday, Habeck suddenly found himself being showered with goodwill, whereas just a few weeks ago, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Scholz during their visits were met with bafflement about Germany’s attitude toward Russia.

It began immediately on Tuesday, during his very first meeting. According to members of the German delegation traveling with Habeck, Janet Yellen, the former head of the Federal Reserve and current secretary of the treasury, paid tribute to Habeck for the German government’s support for partially shutting Russia out of the SWIFT international payment system. Yellen said the sanctions  would hit Russia’s financial sector hard and that it would inflict a severe economic slump that would last for years.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen

Foto: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

German delegation members said the two agreed that further banks and sectors would be blocked from SWIFT if the Russian offensive continues. Yellen expressed understanding that Germany hopes to continue excluding bank transactions that pay for Russian gas, coal and oil exports, from the SWIFT ban. The U.S., she apparently told Habeck, is also reliant on Russia oil .

Secretary of State Antony Blinken Also Requested a Meeting

At the German Embassy in Washington, diplomats could hardly believe the number of people who wanted to meet with Habeck: the secretaries for commerce and energy as well as security and energy advisers. And then Habeck also rushed to Antony Blinken on Tuesday afternoon for an hour-long conversation. Habeck’s people hadn’t even asked to meet with the secretary of state – the request reportedly came from the U.S. side.

The Americans signaled to Habeck that it was a gesture in appreciation for his role in stopping Nord Stream 2. And it's clear that Habeck is enjoying the recognition. Back in Berlin, Chancellor Scholz announced the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 authorization process as if he himself had ordered Habeck to take the step.

In fact, though, the economy minister spent weeks reviewing the legal possibilities for halting authorization of the pipeline - and then he had to convince Scholz in a phone call. In preparing the step, Habeck was in close contact with advisers to U.S. President Joe Biden - which is why Washington officials are fully aware that Habeck deserves the credit for the radical step.

The trip to Washington was probably worth it simply for the recognition. "Habeck couldn't have picked a better week for his visit," said Bastian Hermisson, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, a think tank aligned with Habeck’s Green Party.

After his visit with Blinken, a visibly satisfied Habeck said he had been shown gratitude. "From the U.S. side, the decisions made over the weekend are seen as a demonstration of Germany’s willingness to play a leadership role," Hermisson said. Germany, he added, is taking on increased responsibility for NATO  with more money for the military and arms deliveries.

When asked by a journalist whether Blinken had expressed any doubts about Germany's determination to back up its words with actions, Habeck shook his head. He said he had been met with a surprising degree of openness and trust that the pledges would be fulfilled.

Linking Geostrategic Issues to Energy and Climate

During his meeting, Habeck deftly linked geostrategic issues with those of energy and climate protection. "Investing in military capabilities and investing in energy independence from Russia are two sides of the same coin," Habeck said. He explained to the American energy secretary how Germany intends to become independent of raw material suppliers from Russia.

He said the project is to be based on "three pillars." First of all, Germany intends to diversify its natural gas supplies by introducing liquefied natural gas to the mix through the construction of new LNG ports - and he was open about the fact that Germany will be sourcing liquified natural gas from Qatar and not from the U.S., whose gas supplies have been controversial in Germany because of the widespread reliance on fracking. Second, he said that renewable energies are to be radically expanded and that he wants to put an end to the "somnambulance" in those efforts. Third, he intends to promote the infrastructure necessary for the production of environmentally friendly hydrogen.

Delegation members also say that Habeck was clear that both the buildup  of the German armed forces and the end of Germany’s dependence on Russian energy "would not fail because of money," adding that the plans go far beyond the 2024 budget.

They are comments that certainly help his popularity in Washington. But he also knows that he has support back in Berlin, particularly from Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

During the session of parliament on Sunday, Lindner described renewable energies as "freedom energies" and promised that they would be expanded. It is a freedom, Habeck emphasized, that must be paid for.