A 'Teflon' Chancellor and 'Wildcard' Foreign Minister How America Views the Germans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.

By , John Goetz, , and

Part 5: Standard Diplomatic Procedure?


But American pressure had its desired effect. By abstaining from voting in Brussels, de Maizière ensured that the new agreement could move forward. Murphy proudly notes that de Maizière had even done so in the knowledge that his decision would cause significant problems in Merkel's new coalition. However, the ambassador warns, the German minister would not appreciate a repetition of "our all-out lobbying effort" in the next phase of the SWIFT agreement. "De Maiziere surely finds this whole experience regrettable as it put him in exactly the position he did not want to be in: seemingly siding with the US over German interests."

The next round was soon underway. In February 2010, the more critical European Parliament reached its decision on SWIFT. Ahead of the vote, Ambassador Murphy sent an urgent "action request" to Washington. The embassy "strongly recommended" that Washington send experts to discuss the issue with the German government. Once again, it was the FDP that was causing trouble. "Key government figures have no practical experience in dealing with security problems in the Internet age," Murphy writes.

To address his concerns, Murphy requested a face-to-face meeting with Westerwelle. The foreign minister replied that he could not influence the voting behavior of the German members of the European Parliament, a response the ambassador characterized as "a bit disingenuous." At least Murphy had the support of the chancellor.

Despite that support, the agreement failed in Strasbourg. According to a subsequent cable, then Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust told US diplomats that Merkel had been "very, very angry" about it, "angrier than he had ever seen her." Merkel, von Beust said, had "personally lobbied" conservative members of the European Parliament, but they still voted against the measure.

'Please Protect'

Now that his reports have been made public, Murphy will have a lot of explaining to do. Even though the US government is one of Germany's closest allies, the German government will now have to decide how much latitude it should be giving a good friend. There is a fine line between justifiable diplomatic interest and the management of sources for intelligence purposes. Had Russian or Chinese diplomats approached employees of German political parties, particularly those in government, it would have been a case for counter-espionage authorities. In 1997, when an employee of the US Embassy was caught trying to convince a senior official at the German Economics Ministry to hand over copies of internal documents, a diplomatic conflict ensued. The Chancellery lodged a complaint, and the US official, who was part of the CIA, had to leave Germany.

The difference between this case and that of the FDP note taker who passed on internal documents from the coalition negotiations to the US Embassy is marginal. The embassy is aware of this, or else it wouldn't distinguish between open diplomatic contacts and secret sources. Even the language in the cables points to the subtle difference between the two. Particularly valuable informants are treated as anonymous sources only, or their names are followed by the words "please protect." Murphy says it is merely standard diplomatic procedure as is normal "the world over."

The envoys of many countries, including German diplomats, send similar reports home. But it is one of the unwritten rules of the profession that none of this information can be made public. The negative view the US holds of Westerwelle may be a problem for political relations between the two countries -- but its disclosure is even worse. It turns a limited internal problem into an incalculable public one.

An English-Speaking Foreign Minister

The fact that the State Department cables were leaked and published by WikiLeaks for everyone to see will have its own political impact. Westerwelle is portrayed as someone who the United States sees as unsuitable, arrogant and suspicious. This image will accompany him at future state receptions abroad. America's secret reports could undermine his already diminished authority on the international stage. It likely won't help much that opinions of Westerwelle have softened somewhat since he came into office.

After a meeting on Feb. 5, Murphy notes that the German foreign minister "was in a buoyant mood and more confident on his issues," despite the substantial problems within the coalition.

And at least the cables set the record straight on one issue. Westerwelle was widely ridiculed following his first press conference as foreign minister when he refused to answer a BBC reporter's question in English. Murphy, though, makes a point of praising the foreign minister. Westerwelle, he wrote, "spoke with ease in English."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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