international analysis and commentary

American spying: how to make enemies and lose influence

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As America’s first self-help guru, Dale Carnegie, put it, “Winning friends starts with friendliness.” Given the extent of the damage that the CIA’s myopic spying has done to US-German relations, it is safe to say that the US hasn’t been friendly to its most important European ally of late. Instead, the lunacy of its spying on the Merkel government has turned Carnegie’s words on their head. Rather than making friends and influencing people, America’s horrendously thoughtless policy, for almost no real gain, has managed to fundamentally alienate Berlin and significantly decrease America’s sway there.

For all of Europe’s continued shortcomings: its strategic unseriousness, its free riding off of American defense spending, its often juvenile anti-Americanism, presently it is Washington – in the most stupid manner imaginable – that is endangering the most important alliance in the history of the world. Two further spying scandals have erupted in Berlin this past month, further tarnishing the already corroded relations between America and Germany. The first (and seemingly more serious) involves the arrest of a member of the German BND, the country’s intelligence agency, who is alleged to have served as an American spy for the CIA.

The alleged agent seems to have passed on secret papers concerning the German parliament’s investigation of the NSA’s (America’s National Security Agency) mass surveillance of millions of German citizens and the tapping of the Chancellor’s phone, shocking October 2013 revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In essence, America is spying on Germany’s parliament even as it looks into American spying on Germany.

This is hardly what allies ought to be doing to one another. Following yet another espionage scandal emanating from the German MoD this past month, Mrs. Merkel seems to have rightly had enough. In turn – in an act usually reserved for dealing with rogue states such as North Korea – Merkel asked the American CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country. As Thomas Oppermann, Head of the SPD Parliamentary Group, put it, trust in America’s alliance with Germany could “collapse completely.” Respected German President Joachim Gauck went even further, describing the bungled spying as amounting to “a gamble with friendship.”

It must be said: How could the Obama administration have been so careless? Have they so taken their eye off the European ball as to miss the incredibly obvious point that there would be blowback from all this, and that anything gleaned from the spying is not remotely worth the political damage being done? An increasingly neutralist Germany now has a further reason to continue drifting away from America. A July 2014 Infratest Dimap poll indicates a mere 27% of those surveyed regard the US as trustworthy; even more startlingly a majority now view America as an aggressive power. The Cold War goodwill built up over a half century in Germany towards America has seemingly been criminally squandered in a few short years by the unengaged Obama team.

And what possible treasure trove of information merited placing the whole of the German-American relationship in jeopardy? Amazingly, it is estimated that Germany already shares 80-90% of its raw intelligence with the US, meaning almost all German spying secrets are already simply handed over to Langley. What in the world is to be gained by access to the miniscule amount not simply handed over? Why endanger continuing to receive the 90%, merely to have a look at the precious little not already being voluntarily given to US intelligence?

Better yet, why not just ask the Germans in some open-source venue what they are up to? As Germany is a democratic society, with an almost endless number of newspapers, think tanks, and government outlets explaining in great detail German government positions, why did the CIA feel the need to spy on the Merkel government, when in most cases it could (as I do) simply ask them what is going on?

As the President sensibly said in the summer of 2013, when deciding to stop listening in on the Chancellor’s phone conversations following the Snowden revelations, “If I want to know what Chancellor Merkel is thinking, I will call Chancellor Merkel.” Failing this, reading Spiegel ought to have done the trick. Instead, as Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere put it, “the information reaped by this suspected espionage is laughable. However, the political damage is already disproportionate and serious.”

Worse still, Chancellor Merkel has glumly conceded she is doubtful whether the US will cease spying on Germany even after all the present dreadful publicity and direct German requests to do so. Undeterred, recently she has called for “sensible talks” with the US, focusing on a formal accord that enshrines a “no-spying” clause, meaning America would pledge not to snoop on its long-time strategic ally (and vice versa).

To fail to follow this sensible path is to court irreconcilable political and strategic danger. Anyone who knows anything about Germany and its history must be aware of the obvious cultural reasons for German neuralgia about secret spying, having survived both the Stasi and the Gestapo in turn. This is not a peripheral issue, either for German elites or for its mass public. American tone deafness over espionage is nothing less than a cancer that could effectively end the vital alliance as we know it between these two great Western powers.

Beyond the obvious moral issues, the American intelligence community and its political masters have been criminally stupid in not gauging how counter-productive all this is, how little stands to be gained, weighed against calling the German-American relationship into question itself. A Germany more and more economically intertwined with Russia and China (increasingly part of its common supply chain), a country already drifting away from America over myriad issues, may be pushed out the door in its fury over American high-handed snooping.

It is well past time that people who actually know about German and European culture again reassert their influence on the President, that we heed Germany’s sensible demands for friends not to spy on one another, and that we salvage our relationship with the most important country in Europe. As Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble so rightly put it, “One can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity.” It’s time to change course and to rediscover the realist merits of genuine allied friendship.