Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion Op-Ed
Op-Ed

The German-American breakup

Only 27% of Germans regard the U.S. as trustworthy; a majority view it as an aggressive power

When candidate Barack Obama spoke in July 2008 in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, he told a rapturous German audience that peace and progress "require allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other." It was supposed to be the opposite of George W. Bush's cowboy diplomacy, which alienated the Federal Republic of Germany and much of Europe. Yet six years later, relations between Washington and Berlin are more mistrustful than ever.

The main problem is that President Obama has been listening all too well to Germans — spying on them from more than 150 National Security Agency sites in Germany, according to secret NSA documents that former contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the weekly Der Spiegel.

Germans, who acutely remember the totalitarian surveillance of Nazi Germany and East Germany, cherish their strict data protection and limits on state monitoring. The pervasive spying on one of America's most valuable partners — including the snooping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone from a rooftop listening post at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin — has enraged the German public.

Now, with the fresh revelation that the CIA recruited an intelligence official as a spy, and the possibility of a second spy in the Defense Ministry, the fury is reaching a tipping point. U.S. Ambassador John B. Emerson was called on the carpet by the German Foreign Office on July 4 about the first incident. On Thursday, Germany ordered the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave.

And the brouhaha isn't going away. German President Joachim Gauck, widely revered for his years as a Protestant pastor and human rights activist in the former East Germany, said that if the spying allegations were true, "enough is enough." Karl-Georg Wellmann, a prominent member of Merkel's Christian Democratic party, is calling for the expulsion of any and all U.S. agents.

What's more, leading German politicians are calling for reassessing negotiations with Washington over a transatlantic free-trade agreement that could be vital to the economic futures of both Europe and the United States. And Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced that Berlin would terminate a no-spy agreement it has enjoyed with the U.S. and Britain since 1945 and begin monitoring them in Germany. As Stephan Mayer, a spokesman for Merkel's party, put it, "We must focus more strongly on our so-called allies."

So-called? Such statements, unthinkable only a few years ago, accurately reflect a broader antipathy toward America among the German public, which largely sees Snowden as a hero, particularly for his revelations about the extent of American surveillance in Germany.

Ever since the Bush administration launched the Iraq war in 2003 — which then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder vehemently opposed — many Germans have come to view America as a militaristic rogue state, more dangerous even than Russia or Iran. Indeed, a recent

Infratest Dimap poll indicates that a mere 27% of Germans regard the U.S. as trustworthy, and a majority view it as an aggressive power.

The result is that Germany is undergoing a fundamental transformation. After the Nazi defeat in 1945, the republic's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, emphasized that Germany had to end its tradition of trying to maneuver between East and West as an independent power. Instead, it had to bind itself to the West, economically and militarily. Only Washington could guarantee a free and democratic West Germany. But it is precisely this tradition that is coming to an end as Germany begins to act on what it perceives as its new national interests.

Already Germany is much more sympathetic to Russia than the United States. Schroeder, the former chancellor, serves on the board of Gazprom and is a buddy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another former chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, said that it was "entirely understandable" that Putin would annex Crimea. What's more, German business interests dictate that Berlin seek to maintain a friendly stance toward Moscow.

Similarly, Germans are allergic to any military confrontation with China, which has emerged as one of their most important trading partners.

It shouldn't be entirely surprising that decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reunified Germany is moving from docile Cold War ally to a sovereign power that feels less inhibited by its Nazi past and less indebted to the United States.

But there's no reason for the U.S. to antagonize a longtime ally, either. The two sides need to forge new ties based on mutual respect. They continue to have many common interests in trade, in deterring Russian aggression and in combating terrorism in the Middle East.

In trampling on German civil liberties, the Obama administration is besmirching America's image and allowing Germans to feel morally superior to their former conqueror.

If Obama is unable to rein in spying on Germany, he may discover that he is helping to convert it from an ally into an adversary. For Obama to say auf Wiedersehen to a longtime ally would deliver a blow to American national security that no amount of secret information could possibly justify.

Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • The NSA metadata debate: Reform the program or kill it?

    The NSA metadata debate: Reform the program or kill it?

    The administration wants Congress to enact a new data collection blueprint. But what lawmakers should also study is whether the program is necessary at all.

  • Once again, a U.S. Embassy in Havana

    Once again, a U.S. Embassy in Havana

    Later this month, the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other's capitals for the first time since severing relations in 1961. This has been expected since President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that they intended to restore diplomatic ties. As Obama...

  • In today's world, fear corporations or fear nations?

    In today's world, fear corporations or fear nations?

    I do not often side with Republicans against Democrats. Nor has President Obama been known for his working relationship with congressional Republicans. Yet on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which died in the House three weeks ago, only to be resurrected by the Senate last Wednesday — I find myself...

  • How to handle Puerto Rico's debt crisis

    How to handle Puerto Rico's debt crisis

    This has not been the best week for risky government securities. First, the Greek government failed to make a $1.7-billion payment that was due Tuesday. Then the Puerto Rican government revealed that its debt had become unsustainable, although it managed to forestall a default by making more than...

  • Why another look at affirmative action?

    Why another look at affirmative action?

    Since 2003, when the Supreme Court last ruled that state universities may take race into account in their admissions policies without violating the Constitution, opponents of affirmative action have worked tirelessly to have the court revisit the issue. They were jubilant this week when the justices...

  • Crowdfunding Greece: What's your level of giving?

    Crowdfunding Greece: What's your level of giving?

    Hey there, world citizens! As you may have heard, Greece is in a bad way — tossed between Scylla and Charybdis, as the Greeks would say. But then, the Greeks had a word for everything.

  • D.A. takes right step in reviewing cases

    D.A. takes right step in reviewing cases

    Even if the Board of Supervisors had rejected Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's request for funding to establish a unit to review the integrity of questionable criminal convictions, Lacey would have done the county a service in merely acknowledging the possibility that her office may, on occasion, charge...

  • George Takei: How to bend social media to your will

    George Takei: How to bend social media to your will

    Back in 2011, a friend suggested I start a Twitter account. In those days, social media wasn't yet a "thing." Few actors, let alone those of my generation, were active online. I was known primarily from my supporting role on a television and film franchise that had first aired more than 40 years...

Comments
Loading