Germans used to joke that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s penchant for communicating via fleeting text messages effectively marked the end of traditional historiography. Well, at least US spy agencies seem to have kept full track of the behind-the-scenes communications in Berlin and beyond.
Regrettably, US President Barack Obama and his administration have yet to comprehend the scale and severity of the damage caused to the US’ credibility among its European allies. The problem is not that countries spy on each other — they all do. Rather, it is the extent of US intelligence gathering and Washington’s attitude toward its allies that is most damaging.
Previous transatlantic clashes over diverse issues such as climate change, the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the Iraq War exposed a breakdown of mutual understanding, sometimes stemming from sharp differences over how best to achieve certain common objectives.
However, the wiretapping crisis and other troubling revelations from former US National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence contractor Edward Snowden point to a deeper problem: a crisis of mutual distrust that risks becoming a serious transatlantic rift at a time when closer political, economic and security cooperation between Europe and the US is needed more than ever.
There is probably nothing more destructive to friendly relations among democratic states than behavior by an ally that causes the other side to lose face at home. After all, it was Merkel who tried to calm the waters after the NSA scandal first hit Europe this summer. That is why the alleged US wiretapping of her cellphone is so personally and politically damaging for her.
As someone who served in Merkel’s government from 2009 to 2011, I must admit that I was rather careless in the use of mobile communication devices while in office. In principle, of course, one should always assume that foreign intelligence services attempt to listen in on other governments’ conversations, but it makes a big difference whether such activities are conducted by Russia or China, or by an ally that repeatedly emphasizes the importance of close transatlantic friendship and cooperation.
Obama’s personality makes matters more complicated. It is hard to recall any other US president who has been so personally disconnected from other heads of state. Instead of immediately reaching out to a friendly country, he decided to lie low and send White House press secretary Jay Carney to issue a rather awkward statement that the US government “is not” and “will not” monitor Merkel’s communications. It does not take much interpretive skill to recognize a clumsy attempt to avoid confessing that US intelligence services targeted Merkel in the past.
The Obama administration appears to have failed to ask itself some basic questions. How could it justify spying on a leader who is among Washington’s closest allies in NATO and in the Afghanistan mission? On a leader whom he invited to the Rose Garden to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the US can give to a foreigner?
Moreover, Merkel was not the only target. In the case of France, how could the Obama administration justify targeting an ally that has tried hard to build trust with the US by providing much-needed military and political cover in Libya and Syria? French President Francois Hollande, too, must feel like a fool, not just as a result of US surveillance, but also because he probably received no advance warning from his intelligence services about Obama’s sudden decision to ask the US Congress to pass a resolution prior to using military force in Syria.