Spy Games Trans-Atlantic Relations Should Not Be Jeopardized
The ongoing NSA spying scandal has put major strain on the relationship between Germany and the US. But both sides should stop reacting emotionally and look at the political realities. With trans-Atlantic trade on the line, there's simply too much at stake.
One week after German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a stark message to President Barack Obama about the inadmissibility of spying on friends, there is little doubt that the issue has fractured trans-Atlantic relations. It has been the focus of nearly incessant debate among relevant government officials, the media and the public at large. But emotion has framed this debate when a deep and mutual understanding of one another's positions is needed. The black-and-white attitudes must give way to more nuanced approaches that reflect the complexities of the issues at hand.
So what have the US and Europe learned from all the clamor? And how can they recoup the understanding that is more characteristic of their postwar relationship?
The silence from the White House and the president has gone beyond irritating the Europeans to frustrating and angering them. They firmly believe that Washington must respond seriously and comprehensively to the spying allegations, and take transparent measures to ensure that NSA encroachments on German civil liberties are permanently terminated.
Scandal Not Obama's Top Priority
The Obama administration, however, is occupied with a series of major domestic problems. Its top priority is to turn around the hapless launch of "Obamacare," the president's struggling flagship effort to provide health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. There is also ongoing political gridlock in Congress that continues to hinder progress on issues as diverse as government spending and immigration.
Finally, the commander-in-chief is ultimately responsible for the nation's security. He cannot be expected to turn against his own intelligence services, especially when threats from terrorists remain acute. A White House apology for alleged spying is consequently not at the top of the agenda. In fact, it is fairly far down. If Europeans want to salvage the trans-Atlantic relationship, they must accept that they will have to do so without an official, public apology.
As for the Americans, even the most Europe-friendly power brokers in Washington are irritated by the fact that the Europeans, and particularly the Germans, immediately turned the NSA controversy into an issue of trust. They argue that their quarrels and disappointments with past German policies never chipped away at their fundamental trust in Berlin.
Europe Is Taking a Risk
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's stinging critique of Washington's Iraq policy, which became one of his electioneering planks, the 2011 German abstention in the UN on establishing a no-fly zone over Libya and, most recently, the clear refusal to contribute to any military action in Syria, perturbed and disappointed Washington. But none of these setbacks led to a fundamental re-evaluation of US-German relations. But Europe is taking a risk by reacting to suspected NSA activities by calling for overhaul of the entire trans-Atlantic relationship. After a week of this, a change in rhetoric would be worthwhile.
Related to this second point are the calls to suspend negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). US and European policymakers have already realized that it serves no one's interest to tie alleged NSA activities to a potential US-EU free-trade pact. Such an accord is of geopolitical importance. It would boost employment and economic growth from North Carolina to North Rhine-Westphalia. It would also seal agreement on a data protection portfolio that should prevent a recurrence of the momentary rift. Detaching the NSA debate from the TTIP talks would put back on course the only major new project in which both sides are invested.
No one now denies that everyone is spying on everyone else. Yes, friends spy on one another, including their political leaders, and will continue to do so. The current trans-Atlantic tension has forced a serious and long-overdue debate among allies about the appropriate balance between liberty and security.
Any concrete outcome from this discussion remains unclear, but the good news is that both sides are talking. Their conversations must consider the totality of what is at stake, with a clear acknowledgement that a fundamental rupture risks great losses on the political, economic and security fronts. This is no time for visceral reactions. This is a time -- and an opportunity -- to comprehend each other's perceptions and political realities.
Annette Heuser is the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Bertelsmann Foundation.