A Transatlantic Earthquake in the Wake of the NSA Revelations

While revelations about comprehensive U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance have dismayed people around the world, Germans have been particularly shocked and continue to be angry. It is not “old news” in Germany by now—people deplore the NSA activities as a violation of laws, rights, and trust. Why is this so and what can be done?

The depth of Germans’ shock and disapproval has been easy to gauge. One recent survey commissioned by the public broadcaster ARD and the daily newspaper Die Welt found that only 35 percent of Germans consider the U.S. government trustworthy—the lowest level since the Iraq invasion. The ARD/Die Welt survey also found that 43 percent said they approved of President Barack Obama’s performance in office—a precipitous decline from one year ago, when 75 percent backed him.

Americans have responded with three arguments: The surveillance is legal (in the U.S.), it is vital for security, and everyone does it. While there is some truth to all of this, Germans see it as unresponsive and dismissive. They are still waiting for some sort of symbolic gesture, acknowledging that damage has been done, and for proposals how to address the short and long-term issues.

The strong German response has several historical reasons.

Most of the people now in positions of responsibility in Germany grew up during the Cold War, when spying on those on the other side of the Iron Curtain was vital. Spying as intensely as the NSA today does on one’s friends is disorienting. So we are not your friends after all, people ask, when you treat us as if we were your enemies—can you not distinguish?

Learning that Germany has not so far been a part of the inner circle of the “Five Eyes” reinforces the message that Americans do not see Germany—its ally and friend—as being “close enough.” Trust is also undermined, however, by the massive leak itself, by the lack of damage control, and by the perception of insufficient political oversight.

As many observers have remarked, both during the Nazi regime and in Communist East Germany, the state aimed at total control and used surveillance and the data collected to persecute, incarcerate, terrorize, and kill. Germans are thus highly sensitive regarding data collected by any government (more so than by private companies, which, however, makes many feel uneasy, too). Hence they adamantly insist on effective protection of people’s privacy, which is strongly anchored in the Basic Law, Germany’s post-World War II constitution.

Germans have long had a particularly strong emotional bond to America, seen in the post-World War II era as the defender of freedom and individual rights, including privacy. The scale and indiscriminate nature of NSA surveillance now conveys a different image of unrestrained power, devoid of sensitivity to and risk analysis of potential costs. Under the current circumstances increased information about the soul searching underway in the United States—the critical response of many citizens, new bills introduced in Congress, and the demands of Internet companies that the U.S. government respond to the surveillance concerns—would convey the key message that Americans do see the problem and debate changes.

Germans were deeply shocked and very sympathetic after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Social Democratic chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schröder, who later opposed the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq, offered unlimited solidarity, emphasizing the term “unlimited,” and Germany became an important American ally in Afghanistan. Yet, unlike some other Europeans countries, Germans have so far been spared a large terror attack at home—in part due to the security cooperation with the U.S. The long-term emotional impact of 9/11 in the United States is often underestimated by Germans, who also tend to forget that the 9/11 hijackers had lived, undetected, in Germany.

Spying on the German chancellor, who had been spied upon by the Stasi, has damaged U.S. credibility by undermining the narrative of justifying surveillance with the anti-terror efforts. The chancellor is clearly not a terror suspect. Thus, people conclude that the NSA is not just spying to enhance security, but pursuing an unlimited agenda of trying to gain an advantage for the U.S., and doing so with seemingly limitless means, making people painfully aware of the huge gap in capabilities. This drives home that the U.S. and Europe, while being vital partners, are also competitors and rivals. Germans thus demand that a new anti-spying agreement should not just safeguard the privacy and rights of ordinary citizens and of leading politicians, but should protect businesses from economic espionage.

Americans may shrug their shoulders—what matters for the U.S. president is not German, but American backing. There are no loud public protests in Germany right now, but the silent disappointment is deep and widespread and cannot be easily contained by the foreign policy experts. A possible parliamentary inquiry in the German Bundestag will keep it fresh in people’s minds for months to come. Friends tell me that people turn away in disgust, seeing America as over-reacting and paranoid, as betraying its own values and principles. In addition to all other worries, this is easily exploited by people with anti-American sentiments and interests. It has taken center stage when many other urgent issues require close cooperation. The transatlantic ties are as important in the multipolar world as they were in the Cold War.

What can be done? On both sides of the Atlantic, people feel they are right, and they feel angry and anxious observing the seeming unwillingness of their long-standing partner to understand their respective fears. Rather than mutual indignation and recriminations—Germans upset by lack of trust and Americans dismayed by lack of realism—we need to do what we know works: widen and deepen dialogue. We need to debate vigorously, improve mutual knowledge and understanding, and truly work together on a range of issues, from the impact of the post 9/11 security apparatus on democracy to the future cooperation of the intelligence services. These issues are of vital interest on both sides of the Atlantic and cause for a united effort, rather than for mutual alienation.

Pia Bungarten is Director of Washington Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation 

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