Searching for a Responsible Partner

John Kornblum

AGI Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AGI Board of Trustees.

* This article appeared in German on page 2 of Die Welt on July 19, 2013. It appears here with the permission of the author, Ambassador John Kornblum.

Read in German

In their anger over US Eavesdropping, many Germans have forgotten how important a partner they could be for America. Obama laid it out in Berlin. Only nobody listened

In early 1999, American Embassy parents whose children at-tended Berlin Kindergartens began reporting unpleasant in-sults and even threats from German parents. The outbursts were direct and very personal. As American Ambassador, I was the object of even harsher criticism. The Berlin press was filled with invective against me personally, charging among other things that I was nostalgic for America’s role as an occu-pying power.

What was all this about? After al-Qaida attacks in East Africa in 1998, the US government felt it necessary to increase security at the new Embassy we were planning to build on Pariser Platz. Some changes in the city’s master plan for the area might be necessary. Without even discussing the details of our requests, Berlin authorities seemed to assume that our real goal was to tell Berliners how to rebuild their city. Their reaction was swift and angry. Even in Kindergarten, Embassy families came to me, sometimes in tears, describing vicious comments, often delivered in the presence of their children.

Today our Embassy is secure and unobtrusive. By thinking ahead, we had made sure that no streets would need to be closed to meet our needs. But the debate raged for nearly three years before reason prevailed. And even when the new building finally opened eight years later, one respected architectural critic suggested that he knew which room had been re-served for water-boarding.

I have been reminded of these experiences in recent days during the public uproar over revelations of NSA electronic monitoring around the world. No amount of assurances by the President that archived data was rarely used could calm the anger.

Senior politicians offered asylum to the man who leaked the secrets. Another compared US methods with those of the East German Stasi. There was a call to postpone vital trade negotiations with the United States. A radio commentator asked me if the American people had suddenly lost their love of liberty. A good part of the German press and public seemed neither to trust American democracy nor to understand how essential such security cooperation is to maintaining their own security. Things got so bad that both the Chancellor and the Interior Minister felt the need to calm things down.

Unfortunately, such repeated emotional outbreaks against America are one of the constants of Germany’s relations with the United States, and increasingly with the rest of Europe as well. Their causes are probably as complex as they are hurtful. But the time has past when such reactions can be dis-missed as a growing pain of postwar Germany. Europe, America and the world need a mature German political culture which treats new problems as opportunities rather than impending disasters. This issue deserves almost as much discussion as the American monitoring itself.

The PRISM program is an important test case. Can Western countries conduct a serious discussion on how far we should go to apply new technology to urgent security needs, when it may intrude on personal privacy?

One thing is certain; such difficult choices will multiply in the future. We are talking here not only of terrorist surveillance. The same difficult choices arise with new technology in energy production, in dealing with climate change or the handling growing instability in areas such as the Middle East. Genetically modified food crops can help defeat world hunger. New types of weapons, such as drones, can dramatically reduce the cost of maintaining security.

But Europeans too often follow the American Embassy example. They react emotionally to the threats before serious discussion has even begun. The PRISM program, for example, is based on carefully controlled system approved by Congress and supervised by special courts. It provides a much firmer foundation for government surveillance than is available in most European countries. Rather than condemning it, Europeans could profit from a serious discussion of its implications.

Today our leaders are facing a world in which national borders, political systems and even one’s most private thoughts are steadily being merged into a seemingly endless archive of in-formation which can do everything from topple governments to predict when our children will have their first teeth. Leading nations such as Germany and the United States must be at the head of efforts to reconcile such dramatic change with Western values. To be useful, the discussions must be factual and unemotional.

Which leads us back to the American Embassy in 1999. Any-one who has worked with Germany for as many years as I have, knows that factual and unemotional are rarely words used to characterize political discussions within German society. Ger-many has still yet to rebuild a foundation of self confidence which makes it possible to view challenges as tasks rather than emotional crises. Even issues such as the Euro are too often viewed as moral imperatives rather than objects of common strategy.

Let’s be honest about another important point. The American national character often leads to quick decisions and unilateral behavior. Being blamed for every mishap which befalls us, of-ten reinforces these traits. The United States needs mature partners to help sort out the many confusing choices ahead. We need steady, pragmatic advice, and yes, also pressure if we seem to be going astray. President Obama offered exactly this sort of partnership when he laid out an extensive agenda for pragmatic cooperation in his recent speech in Berlin. And by not mentioning the EU even once in his remarks, the President made clear that America expected Germany to be the leading partner in this effort.

Will Germany step up to this task and help ensure that Europe-an voices are heard loudly in Washington? Numerous recent examples, from Libya to natural gas production to surveillance of terrorism give little reason for optimism. The next emotional outburst against America is probably just around the corner.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.