John Emerson never stops smiling. On the evening of Friday, July 4 -- Independence Day -- the United States ambassador shook hands on the red carpet at a reception given by his embassy at Berlin's former Tempelhof Airport, which has since been transformed into a park. Emerson greeted his guests with a diplomat's practiced joviality. He faced an endless line of businesspeople, German government officials and celebrities, and although he could be seen sweating, his smile remained unbroken, as if to convey the message that all was still well in the world.
It's been a common scene at recent encounters between American and German officials. But behind the perfect façade, relations are cracking. Even as workers were decorating Tempelhof Field with pennants and small flags last Friday, a report was making the rounds in the German capital that could very well drag relations between Washington and Berlin to a new low.
During questioning, an employee of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), told German authorities he had sold secret documents to the Americans. Given that special encryption technology was found during a raid of his apartment, it seems highly unlikely that selling the classified information was his idea.
This Wednesday, the spying scandal took on a new dimension when investigators with the Federal Criminal Police Office raided the home and offices of a Defense Ministry employee whom officials also suspect may have spied for the Americans.
The developments are only the latest tussle in a relationship between Germany and the United States that has suffered in recent years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already abandoned hope that the United States will come to its senses and rein in its intelligence agencies. During Merkel's last visit to Washington, US President Barack Obama wasn't even willing to commit to a no-spy agreement guaranteeing Germany a modicum of security.
Merkel Fears Growing Anti-American Sentiment
The chancellor did, however, expect the Americans to at least refrain from involving her in any further embarrassing incidents -- she has no interest in seeing a continued rise in anti-US sentiment in Germany, a development that would ultimately offer her no choice but to distance herself from the Americans once again. But that point may have already been reached.
As of the end of last week, the BND had not yet fully investigated the spy scandal. But if the story turns out to be true, it will mean that the Americans paid a mole to copy documents for them, some of which were even intended for the German parliamentary committee set up to investigate the NSA's activities in Germany. It would represent a new level of audacity.
The initial reports alone were enough to enrage key members of Germany's coalition government composed of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- so much so that some now feel US intelligence agencies are capable of anything.
"If it is confirmed that the spying activities against the BND also targeted the work of the NSA investigative committee, it will be an unprecedented assault on the parliament and our democratic institutions," said Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the SPD. By Wednesday of this week, with fresh suspicions of spying at the Defense Ministry, Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, indicated a German-American relations had hit a new nadir and spoke for the first time of "profound differences of opinion" between Berlin and Washington.
The German Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Emerson on Friday afternoon, before the Fourth of July festivities began. Employees at the German Chancellery were instructed to restrict their communications with the United States to essential matters. Some in the German government have even considered setting an example and expelling an American diplomat. And nearly a week later, on Thursday, the government in Berlin asked the CIA's station chief in Germany to leave the country. Although less serious than a formal expulsion, the action is still tantamount to a diplomatic kick in the knees.
Is Germany Caught Between East and West?
Of course, this isn't really what the chancellor wants. She would prefer to see the Germans remain firmly rooted in the Western alliance and loyal to their American partners. But she has also noticed how much anti-American sentiment the NSA scandal has stirred up among Germans. The Körber Foundation recently commissioned a study on Germans' attitudes toward German foreign policy. With which country should Germany cooperate in the future, respondents were asked? In a near-tie between East and West, close to 56 percent named the United States while 53 percent named Russia.
Therein lies the deeper tension. On the one hand, Germans are disappointed by the Americans and their unceasing surveillance activities. At the same time, they have demonstrated a surprising level of sympathy for the Russians and their president, Vladimir Putin, in the Ukraine crisis. This raises the fundamental question of Germany's national identity. In the long run, Germans will have to decide which side they prefer.
In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the issue had become less of a priority because the contrast between East and West, and the polarization between the United States and Russia, seemed to have been eliminated. Germany didn't have to choose sides because there was no real dividing line. But the Ukraine crisis and the NSA scandal have put an end to this comfortable phase, and now that antagonism between the West and Russia has erupted once again, Germany can no longer avoid the question of which side it supports.
According to a SPIEGEL poll, 57 percent of Germans feel that their country should become more independent of the United States when it comes to foreign policy. Uncomfortable questions are also being raised, including whether Berlin's close relationship with the West was merely a transitional phenomenon.
Embassies Reflect a Nation's Image
If embassy buildings are meant to project the psyche of a nation, the US Embassy in Berlin is an effective symbol. The exterior consists of an inviting light-colored sandstone structure with an American flag flying above the entrance's curved glass roof. At second glance, however, the building at Pariser Platz 2 also resembles a fortress protected by barriers, surveillance cameras and bullet-proof glass.
Ambassador Emerson's office is on the fifth floor. Visitors are required to leave their mobile phones in the reception area downstairs and must then pass through three security checkpoints. Even Emerson's press secretary has to deposit her cell phone in a small wooden box before entering the ambassador's floor. His office is secured with a steel door, and the glass windows looking out on Tiergarten Park and Brandenburg Gate are so thick that they would probably withstand a nuclear strike.
Emerson's ebullience stands in stark contrast to the security paranoia surrounding him. He is a jovial former attorney and investment banker from Chicago, who raised millions of dollars for Obama's election campaigns and now, at the end of his career, has been given an attractive ambassadorship in Europe. Emerson, like many of his predecessors, hardly speaks a word of German.
For many years, this wasn't an issue. American ambassadors in the past had no need to vie for the affections of Germans, because it was a matter of course. Konrad Adenauer, the country's first postwar chancellor, opted for the young republic's integration into the West, which culminated in West Germany's accession to NATO in 1955.
As a result of Adenauer's decision, the question of which side Germany belonged to remained off the table for decades. Even after German reunification in 1990, which then US President George Bush passionately supported, the German-American partnership was not fundamentally questioned.
A Sea-Change in Relations
The presidency of George W. Bush was a turning point in the Germans' relationship with America. When then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) openly opposed the White House's decision to invade Iraq twelve years ago, it marked a sea change. Bush justified the Iraq war with a lie and cemented the image of a superpower that believes it is no longer required to abide by rules and laws.
Emerson is not in an easy position. His predecessor had to grapple with the WikiLeaks scandal, in which American embassy cables describing senior German politicians in less than flattering terms were leaked to the public. The excitement had just subsided when it was revealed that the NSA was listening in on Merkel's mobile phone. At the time, Emerson had only been in his position in Berlin for a few weeks.
During a visit in late May, Emerson had no illusions about the public mood in Germany. Anti-Americanism is not a new phenomenon -- many of those who demonstrated against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s or NATO's 1970s missile policy weren't only motivated by a desire for peace. Even back then, members of the German left were determined to send a message opposing the evil empire across the Atlantic. "I'm afraid of your fantasies and your ambition, America, oh America," German musician Herbert Grönemeyer sang on his album "Bochum," released in 1984. His words captured the mood of an entire generation.
This time there is more at play than the usual resentments, given all that has happened in recent years: the Iraq war, Guantanamo, the use of drones for targeted executions, the financial crisis, the NSA and fears of Google. The Germans feel they have every reason to mistrust the United States, an erstwhile friend whom many now see as sinister.