‘It’s More Fun’: Germany Offers Blinken a Gushing Welcome

BERLIN — Foreign leaders often feign indifference toward changes in American governments. But during his two-day visit to Germany’s capital, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s swooning hosts did little to disguise their relief over the end of the Trump era and the rejuvenation of American ties with Germany.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was practically gushing at a joint appearance with his counterpart at a chic Berlin beer garden Thursday, recalling his first conversation with Mr. Blinken after he became secretary of state.

“At the end of the telephone call,” he said, “I couldn’t help myself by saying, ‘Tony, I still have to get used to the fact that I can speak to the American foreign secretary and always be of the same view — because that used to be different beforehand.’”

Germany, Mr. Maas said, is “very happy that the United States is now back on our side again.” Then, after explaining the global import of that shift, Mr. Maas, a tall glass of beer before him, paused.

“It’s more fun, too,” he added.

A day earlier, standing beside Mr. Blinken, German’s departing chancellor, Angela Merkel, also sounded plainly relieved.

“We are delighted that the American states, in order to quote the American President Joe Biden, are back again on the international, multilateral scene,” Ms. Merkel said. She and President Biden, she said, have been able to “agree on a common approach, to global problems.

That was rarely the case for Germany when it came to President Donald J. Trump.

And so Mr. Blinken’s visit underscored German happiness at the departure of an American president who took an antagonistic approach to Germany, a European economic powerhouse and key NATO ally, calling it an economic competitor and free-rider under America’s defense umbrella. After the resignation of Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, one member of Ms. Merkel’s party even said that Mr. Grenell had acted like “the representative of a hostile power.”

Mr. Blinken made clear that those days are over.

“I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany,” he told Mr. Maas during a joint appearance at Germany’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, words that were met in Berlin with a mixture of delight and pride.

Mr. Blinken’s visit followed by several days President Biden’s first trip to Europe as president, during which he proclaimed the return of America’s traditional trans-Atlantic leadership role. Mr. Biden’s itinerary did not include Germany, but he met twice with Ms. Merkel at gatherings of European leaders, and plans to host Ms. Merkel at the White House next month.

“The new American government has extended a hand, and we should grasp it,” Germany’s economics minister, Peter Altmaier, said before departing on a visit to Washington on Wednesday, according to the German publication Deutsche Welle.

Behind the scenes, however, it was not all happy hours and happy talk.

Mr. Blinken and Mr. Biden are firmly opposed to the completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, saying it will provide Moscow with leverage over Europe’s energy security and threaten Ukraine, which earns around $1 billion annually from an existing pipeline that Russia could eventually stop using.

Mr. Biden last month waived Congressional sanctions on the Russian company building the pipeline and its German chief executive, effectively conceding that an effort to halt the project — which was more than 90 percent complete by the time Mr. Biden took office — was not worth the likely cost to U.S.-German relations.

Now American and German officials are discussing ways to mitigate any Russian advantages from the project, including trying to ensure that the Kremlin cannot “use gas as a coercive weapon against Ukraine or anyone else,” as Mr. Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month.

Neither man would provide more details on those talks. After hearing multiple questions on the subject during his appearance with Mr. Blinken, Mr. Maas smiled wanly.

“Probably we are able to save the world at large, but people would still ask us about Nord Stream 2,” Mr. Mass said. “Well, we’ll have to accept it and live with it.”

German officials celebrated America’s engagement at a Wednesday conference on the future of Libya that Mr. Blinken and other State Department officials, including the U.S. envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, attended.

The United States was a halfhearted participant at the first such conference, held in January 2020. Mr. Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, made a brief appearance at the event and left the country before it had concluded.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mass said Wednesday that the Biden administration was “very engaged on this dossier,” adding, in an implicit dig at the Trump team, “much more active than we have come to expect over the past few years.”

Libya is trying to find a stable and independent political footing after years of civil war and military intervention by foreign powers — including Egypt, Russia, Turkey and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — competing for influence after the 2011 overthrow of its longtime dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Wednesday’s conference, in which a group of nations reaffirmed earlier calls for Libya to hold elections scheduled for Dec. 24 and for all foreign forces to withdraw from the country, produced little in the way of new progress.

A senior administration official, speaking on background, said one obstacle was Turkey’s insistence that its military trainers were in the country legitimately under an agreement with a previous Libyan government. But U.S. officials are hopeful that a deal might be worked out in which a few hundred mercenary fighters, each representing different factions in the country’s recent struggle, might be repatriated as an initial confidence-building measure.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Blinken visited Berlin’s haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to commemorate the start of a joint German American “dialogue” on Holocaust issues meant to combat rising anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

“We are helping to ensure that current and future generations learn about the Holocaust and learn from it,” Mr. Blinken said, telling the story of his late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Nazi camp survivor who lost his family in the Holocaust.

The day ended on a cheerful note, however, as Mr. Blinken and Mr. Mass — perched on stools under an outdoor tent, shorn of jackets and ties, and sipping beer — took questions from current and former participants in U.S.-German educational exchange programs. (Mr. Blinken, who joked that he had received a smaller glass on request, appeared to take only one sip.)

A lifelong musician, Mr. Blinken recalled taking a road trip to Hamburg while living in Paris as a teenager and winding up playing an impromptu series of gigs in a bar there with his rock band, whose other members he called “talented, unlike me.”

Mr. Maas and Mr. Pompeo had civil relations, but it was clear that the German diplomat, born a year after Mr. Blinken, had a special chemistry with the new secretary of state.

“I’m very happy to see that both of you seem like very, very good friends,” observed one law student who posed a question. “And this makes me hopeful abut the future of German American cooperation.”

Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.