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Dispatch from Berlin on a Diplomatic Disaster

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Friday, October 25, 2013 at 7:00 AM

A diplomatic disaster for the United States is currently unfolding in Berlin. The revelation that the NSA may have monitored cell phone conversations and text messages of Chancellor Angela Merkel has led to popular outrage in Germany, as well as unusually pointed language from the Chancellor and other government officials. The U.S. Ambassador was not merely asked but summoned (“einbestellt”) to the German foreign office—a strong verb used until now (if at all) only for the Syrian and Iranian ambassadors. The Chancellor’s phone conversation with President Obama did nothing to ease the tension. Merkel declared such practices totally unacceptable: Between friends and partners such as the United States and Germany, the monitoring of communications by government leaders is a grave breach of trust, her press secretary emphasized. The Obama administration, other than saying the Chancellor’s phone is not now and will not in the future be monitored, has offered nothing: neither apology, nor explanation of what happened in the past, nor any sort of suggestion for future cooperation or discussion of a collective solution.

Maybe all of this will blow over quickly—just a headline-grabbing news story, made even better by the emerging details of the Chancellor’s two very different cellphones (one secure, one not) and questions about German helicopters flown over the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt in September. But it may not. Chancellor Merkel’s tone is sharp and that of minority parties in Parliament is even sharper. Those parties have been critical of Merkel for failing to react more strongly to prior revelations about the NSA. Mostly, however, the two center parties (Merkel’s CDU and the SPD) are united, rather than divided by their criticism of the United States. The current dispute goes may have deep roots as well.  Roger Cohen has a nice piece up at the New York Times, detailing the German (and European) perception that the Obama administration has been dismissive, including with respect to possible military intervention in Syria.

The Federal Republic of Germany has traditionally been more willing than the United States to sacrifice some civil liberties in order to protect democratic values—their “streitbare” or “aggressive” democracy prohibits, for example, certain political parties that lean extremely far right or left. But totalitarian East Germany—in which spying on and on behalf of the government was very widespread—has left its mark on the popular culture. Listening in on other people’s private phone conversations brings to mind an immediate past of repression and brutality for the Germans. And today the United States is seen as presenting a serious threat to the civil liberties of all Germans, not just Chancellor Merkel.  The comparison of Obama to East German state security is explicit.  Although U.S.-German relations suffered during the invasion of Iraq, that was widely blamed on the Republican presidency of George W. Bush. With the Democrat Obama at the helm, however, localizing the blame is no longer so easy. U.S.-German relations may be at their lowest point since the end of World War II.  Even if the German government wanted to overlook U.S. snooping (to avoid too much scrutiny of their own activities), the domestic political costs of looking the other way now have increased here as they have in France and Brazil.

What are the potential costs for U.S. foreign policy? In the short term, there is discussion in Europe of conditioning further European-U.S. bilateral trade negotiations upon a satisfactory solution to the problem of U.S. government data collection from Europe.  Moreover, data sharing of various sorts could be limited; German or European laws could substantially ramp up data privacy protection, at potential cost to U.S. businesses; German prosecutors and the German Parliament may take up the issue. And, finally of course, there is a cost to U.S. soft power.

To limit these costs the U.S. needs to re-pivot toward Europe, as Cohen argues. President Obama also needs to articulate a clear set of policy objectives for, along with a defense of, NSA activities. The current public relations debacle in Europe is, I think, related to the public relations problems within the U.S., both of which stem in part from a failure of leadership, a point noted in the German press. More ambitiously, it is worth recognizing that despite their anger, Germans understand that their national security benefits from some U.S. collection of data, and that the “everyone does it” charge has some force. There might be reason for optimism with respect to collective discussion between Europe and the United States and even modest agreement on some limits to electronic surveillance of foreign nationals and in foreign countries. Assuming, of course, that the United States is willing to provide transparency, to negotiate and make compromises, and—crucially—to provide effective leadership. The costs of the current U.S. unilateral “approach” are growing, and our negotiating power waning, a trend that appears likely to continue.

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