The Evolving Reaction to Electronic Eavesdropping

The spectrum of dramatically differing U.S. and German reactions to the revelation of National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping of electronic communications, along with the parallel domestic debates in both countries, suggests that the transatlantic controversy may have deeper roots than just an angry direct response to the broad and sustained invasion of personal privacy.

Reduced to their core, many of the early analyses of how disparate transatlantic perceptions and narratives have emerged from the revelations have emphasized the tension of balancing threats—however perceived and defined—and personal communication privacy. Many of the stories continued with explanations of why the term balance is itself perceived differently on both sides of the Atlantic, even if rigorous definition of “threat” and “balance” are often omitted. Yet, these same words can be, and frequently are, understood differently in Germany and the United States.

On the other hand, many Germans recognize the more visceral reaction Americans have to 9/11. Initial expressions of unlimited solidarity began to fade in continental Europe as early as March 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, and they have continued to weaken since then. The sense of a shared transatlantic threat to security has atrophied in Europe during the same period.

Diverging threat perceptions are more than a matter of geography, or a “where you stand depends on where you sit” response. They reflect deeper attitudes on underlying concepts of national and regional security, the role of the nation-state in the twenty-first century, and the legitimacy of the use of force in international relations. Attitudes on these more fundamental categories differ markedly in the United States and Europe, particularly in Germany. Further, in focusing on competing sets of arguments on the necessity and propriety/impropriety of pervasive electronic eavesdropping, the more basic discussion is often missing, as illustrated by such superficial offerings in the United States: “We did it (eavesdropping) because we are able to do it.” In equally superficial German commentary, one can search in vain even to find the word threat mentioned as part of the discussion.

All the foregoing does not answer the question of why this malaise, or Verstimmung, is not receding quickly from the top of the German-American agenda. Clearly, the broadly felt anger and surprise in Germany about the extent of an ally’s electronic intrusion into private communication is understandable. The added insult to the German chancellor, regardless of whether there was a conscious, high-level policy decision to monitor her cellphone or a misplaced technical initiative somewhere down the NSA organizational chain, only made things dramatically worse, because it put the chancellor in the immediate position of having to respond strongly and publicly to President Obama. Even after the apologies and dialogue, though, the crisis continues. So the question remains: why?

In my view, possible explanations lie more in observing how the German-American relationship has changed in the last twenty-five years—most vividly illustrated by the reunification of Germany and the broader reunification of Europe. Those geopolitical changes brought with them a metamorphosis to the strategic political cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, among other things, that meant a change in the nature, if not the existence, of the German-American relationship. The components of that relationship have changed so that, for example, the security component—so important during the Cold War decades—is no longer a principal element. Security has not disappeared from the equation of course, but economic, commercial, and financial components overshadow security by far. This development is understandable given the changed geopolitics of twenty-first century Europe. There’s nothing sinister about it. Expressed differently, from a security and security threat perspective, the Germany of 2014 no longer needs the United States in the way it did during the Cold War.

With the passage of time, the residual sense among Germans of being somehow “beholden” to the United States is quickly diminishing. Germans twenty-five years old and under were not yet born when the Berlin Wall fell. For them and many others, the Berlin Airlift and other seminal events of the Cold War, including, not least of which, the critical American support for reunification in 1989-90 by President George H.W. Bush, are present only in history books.

Finally, the eavesdropping issue has had the unfortunate additional effect of giving those in Germany and elsewhere an opportunity to exploit reasonable public reaction for anti-American demagoguery. A danger of the latter is that if such rhetoric were to become widespread and publicized in the United States, it could lead to an American counter-reaction, where broad American understanding for the German sense of personal violation could be replaced by resentment for an “excessive” German reaction.

Let’s hope for the sake of our longstanding and deep relationship that calm heads prevail and that effective mutual steps are taken to balance real threat and real privacy in recognition of the higher good of a strong and enduring transatlantic partnership.

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