O, Brother, Where Art Thou? The SPD Must Return to Transatlantic Politics

Guido Steinberg

German Institute for International and Security Affairs

Dr. Guido Steinberg was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow at AICGS in Fall 2017.

In Germany, Guido Steinberg works for at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. An Islamicist by training, he has worked as a research coordinator at the Free University of Berlin and an advisor on international terrorism in the German Federal Chancellery (2002-2005).

Since 2006, he has served as an objective expert witness in all major trials against Islamist terrorists in Germany, and has also testified in Austria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and the United States. He regularly comments on Middle East affairs and terrorism on German and international media, most frequently on Deutsche Welle TV in German, English, Arabic, and Spanish.

In his academic work, Guido Steinberg focusses on Saudi Arabian and Gulf history and politics, Islamism and Salafism as well as Islamist Terrorism. He has published widely on these topics, including: German Jihad. The Internationalization of Jihadist Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

At AICGS, he will work on the research project “Countering the Islamic State: German and U.S. Policy Options.” He will give an overview of the threat posed by Islamist terrorists to Germany, analyze the measures invoked by the German government and its allies to counter the threat, and offer his views on additional efforts to improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nicole Renvert

Nicole Renvert

Dr. Nicole Renvert is a political scientist with a special focus on the analysis of think tanks, foundations, and Non-Governmental Institutions. Her recent book “Power Brokers in Difficult Times” reviews the role of German Political Foundations in transatlantic relations. Dr. Renvert has studied History, International Relations, and Political Science at the Universities of Bonn, the Sorbonne, and Georgetown University. She has worked for the United States Holocaust Memorial Research Institute (USHMM), the World Bank, and the OSCE. She was the Director of the Transatlantic Project of the Bertelsmann Foundation and held assignments with the Herbert-Quandt-Foundation, Altana AG, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the Aspen Institute Berlin. Dr. Renvert was a Visiting Fellow at the Policy Planning Division of the German Foreign Office, at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Washington, DC, and at the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa) in Stuttgart. From 2008- 2014 she was a Researcher at SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. In 2014 she became a Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg, Centre for Global Cooperation, University Duisburg Essen and did research on “The Impossibility to Cooperate.” Nicole is now a Member of the Executive Board of the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business (APA) in Berlin. Her current projects are on the notion of trust in International Relations.

Guido Steinberg and Nicole Renvert of the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik detail the rise and  — more recently — fall of SPD transatlanticism. The NSA debate has uncovered a difficult relationship between the SPD and United States, and the party must bridge this gap to maintain the West’s cohesive partnership for future crises. This text appears originally in German at the Berliner Republic.

In the summer of 2013, Edwards Snowden’s leaks led to an intense debate over the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). In Germany, the focus of the discussion quickly shifted toward the question of how much the government and Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service,  BND) knew. The Merkel administration heavily criticized the United States and made partially absurd allegations. The chancellor, for example, said “…in Germany and in Europe…the power of law [counts], not the law of the powerful” and thereby created the impression that this was not the case in the United States. Once campaigning started, leading Social Democratic Party (SPD) politicians increased their critique by demanding consequences for cooperation with the United States. Party chair Sigmar Gabriel requested that the Federal Prosecutor’s office investigate the American and British intelligence services and their “German accomplices,” which most likely meant the BND. Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück demanded that free trade talks between the EU and the United States cease for the time being, and SPD parliamentary secretary Thomas Oppermann explained that Germany was the “target of an attack by an ally” and that the American intelligence services were “still playing war”.

As during the debate about the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, the SPD attempted to win votes by serving the anti-American sentiment among voters. This becomes a problem as American partners notice a pattern, where the SPD is ready to sacrifice the transatlantic relationship for short-term party interests. This lowers the credibility and the reputation of the SPD in the United States. In the NSA debate, many of these allegations were unjustified, as the NSA’s activities were already known when the SPD held the Chancellery. Furthermore, even during that time the German intelligence services strongly depended on American colleagues and still do today. Without the help of the NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) there may have been many more terrorist attacks in Germany. Many Americans ask themselves why three consecutive German governments welcomed an ever-increasing amount of information from U.S. intelligence services only to publicly and unfairly criticize them in the first crises.

Instead of focusing on the short-term effect of the campaign, the SPD could have used the channels, established over many years with the United States, to criticize. The SPD should have chosen a much more factual, discreet, and thereby more responsible approach in which the participants of the discussion also consider possible consequences for the transatlantic relationship. This would have led to a more constructive exchange and possibly even cooperative approach toward how to limit the uncontrolled growth of surveillance—something some policy-makers in the United States are also interested in. After all, the SPD has invested in the transatlantic relationship for decades, so that a factual approach in the crisis would have been important.

The NSA, CIA, and German Intelligence Services

American government representatives reacted rightly with incomprehension to the sometimes hysterical critique of the NSA activities. After all, American intelligence services’ surveillance prevented terrorist attacks in Germany. The most prominent case is the “Sauerland Cell,” whose members were arrested in September 2007 after starting to produce explosives for unknown targets. Without the help of the NSA, the Germans could have only prevented these attacks with a great amount of luck. There is at least one other case when American intelligence helped Germany prevent an attack. However, there is more to this topic than just the prevention of attacks. Since September 11, 2001, the exchange of information between the United States and its partners has increased significantly. Here, Germany is almost always at the receiving end. Therefore, German intelligence services’ level of knowledge is strongly dependent on American capabilities. After 2001, The CIA became a sort of international clearinghouse for counterterrorism intelligence, collecting information worldwide. Allied services are thus reduced to partly dependent entities in a wider network, centered in Langley, Virginia. The Saudis, Germans, and Turks could not efficiently fight terrorism without the help of the United States. The BND’s dependence on its American colleagues is especially strong, though as it was founded by the United States after World War II and has been unable to loosen this initial link.

The BND and its supervisory authority were already well aware of this enormous structural dependency  when the SPD held the chancellery and coordinated the intelligence services from there. Therefore, its recent allegations against the NSA were quite confusing for the Americans. Although the exact scope of NSA activities was not known at that time, the fact that the NSA increased its monitoring of the internet and telecommunication after 2001 was well-known to specialists. America’s astonishing capabilities were first witnessed by many officials during the Sahara hostage crises of 2003. Most experts knew that the U.S. intelligence community used these capabilities continuously to successfully fight al-Qaida.

The SPD’s Transatlantic Cooperation

There are examples that the undertakings of the NSA can be openly criticized in a constructive and thereby appropriate way. The Chairman of the German-American Parliamentary Group Hans-Ulrich Klose expressed his concern on the scope of the NSA investigations, rather than the activities per se. He correctly noted that monitoring friendly governments is unacceptable and that there is certainly a need for new regulations to protect the sovereignty of states and the rights of individuals. Yet, above all, Klose emphasized considerateness dealing with American partners.

Maybe the current debate demands even more than that: more engagement and caution with other aspects of the transatlantic relationship that the Social Democrats should protect and support , including trust, appreciation, and credibility with the most important partner outside of Europe. In search of more voters, the SPD neglects these aspects at times or even sacrifices them in the heat of an election campaign. Thus, the Social Democrats unnecessarily limit their policymaking capabilities and damage their good relationship with the United States—built over years and through remarkable transatlantic initiatives, i.e. with an important policy paper on how to prevent Iranian proliferation of nuclear weapons in 2005 or through the regular exchange of German parliamentarians and members of the US Congress. The SPD shares an exceptional past with the United States, which for many years was fostered through Willy Brandt’s “Sechserkreis,” an ad-hoc working group between six members of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), SPD caucus, and the party—among them Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski—that created a first-class network with the United States. Furthermore, with the help of the FES, which supported an intense exchange between American and German policy-makers, the SPD was able to overcome the transatlantic crisis at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, caused by the  NATO double-track decision and personal tension between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Jimmy Carter.

With reunification and enthusiasm about the peaceful transformation of East and West, there were also doubts about Germany’s future role. Several incidents, among them the attacks on asylum seeker homes  notably in Rostock and other places, brought about international fear of a possible nationalistic and even militaristic Germany. Again, Social Democrats, who were not the ruling party at that time, were asked to explain developments in Germany whenever they came to the US. They could do this successfully because German Political Foundations, like the FES, offered them a platform in the United States to talk about the challenges Germany was confronted with during the 1990s. This also worked  because well-known and highly respected Social Democrats like the Coordinator for German-American Relations, Karsten Voigt, consistently offered reliable and appreciated discussions about German politics.

In 2003, the emotional debate about Germany’s involvement in Iraq, which Chancellor Schröder clearly opposed, brought life to the campaign, but proved to have negative impacts on the transatlantic relationship at the same time. Although the chancellor’s decision was correct, it rather seemed to have been motivated by the campaign than by foreign policy considerations. Many Americans remember that the SPD campaign unnecessarily damaged relations with the United Stated during that time.

During the discussion about the German decision not to take part in the Iraq war, some Social Democrats attempted to maintain communication with the United States though, as the importance of the relationship was without doubt to them. Therefore, the FES initiated the “Global Atlanticists,” a network including Germany’s leading transatlanticists from all parties, as well as external experts, who promoted an exchange with American members of Congress, the government and the US administration. The goal was to transcend tensions on Government level, to cooperatively create a foreign policy strategy and to identify the joint challenges of the United States and Germany. This project showed that rebuilding trust required much more time and effort than losing it.

To a New Transatlantic Agenda

The summer 2013 NSA debate is a further challenge in the transatlantic relationship and will show who the United States’ partners in Germany will be, i.e., who it can work with constructively. Instead of losing credibility with its American partners, the SPD should continue what it has done so successfully in the past: prove that it can built bridges across the Atlantic and that it is a reliable, albeit critical, transatlantic partner even in times of crisis. The SPD started a valuable initiative on November 8, 2012, by issuing a parliamentary proposal that intended to revive and strengthen the transatlantic relationship. The parliamentarians called for increased cooperation in governmental and legislative institutions, agreed on talks on free trade regulation, and sought a cooperative strategy to tackle  problems arising with revolutions across the Arab world.

The proposal, which the CDU, FDP, and the Left unfortunately voted against, could serve as a blueprint for the SPD’s future relationship with the United States. This framework could help the SPD get back to serious transatlantic politics and would help to make forget its dismal handling of the NSA debate. This is all the more urgent as it may not be decades before security issues, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons, fragile states, and transnational terrorism, become a larger problem for Germany. When this is the case, the outcry for an international partner will be much louder, and if the United States is not this partner, no other options are available.


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