Illusion and Disillusion in the German-American Tryst

„No Peace with NATO“: Anti NATO protest on the occasion of the Munich Security Conference 2015

By Dr. Andrew B. Denison

Filling the Avenue of the 17th of June in front of the Victory Column in Berlin, an unprecedented crowd of 200,000 hailed the arrival of Barack Obama on July 24, 2008, roaring in ecstatic enthusiasm, if less than complete comprehension, as the Senator and candidate for president of the United States declared, “The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden.” Today President Obama would likely encounter more protesters than supporters. They would accuse him of leading a spying, assassinating America, described by Germans in a recent infratest dimap poll as “power hungry” (70%) and “condescending” (64%) if not also “progressive” (66%), “democratic” (60%) and “open to the world” (56%). Still, a negative image predominated, with “reckless” (51%) and “aggressive” (46%) overshadowing “trustworthy” (27%).

German pollster Allensbach shows a roller coaster of feelings toward America. In 2004, with George W. Bush in the White House, 41 percent said relations were good; in 2009, after the election of Obama, a whopping 87 percent of Germans said relations were good; now, only 34 percent say relations are good—despite of or because of Barack Obama.

„How would you describe the relations between the US and Germany?“

Germany, perhaps showing a particular sensitivity toward America, has changed its perceptions of Obama significantly more than other European country, according to a Pew Research poll from July 2014.

“There is no evidence of a rise of anti-Americanism in most of Western Europe, home to great animosity toward Washington in the middle of the last decade. Only in Germany, where U.S. favorability is down 13 points since 2009, has the positive image of the United States slipped significantly.”

It is easy to bemoan a lack of American global leadership when the real problem is the naïve idea that the United States is primarily concerned with fulfilling the expectations of all its partners. Germans are particularly enamored by the idea that America will dance to their tune—all love of Kindergarten, beer, BMW and Heckler & Koch notwithstanding. It is easy to say that American standstill contributes to European standstill; it is harder to maintain that an American economy pulling further and further ahead of Europe is also the source of Europe´s problems. Old scapegoats die hard. Europe´s problems are deep-seated and structural, rooted in the disorder that followed the World Wars and not in America´s hunger for power.

Disillusion with Cyber-Power America
Germans have taken particular offense at the revelations of Edward Snowden—not that Americans spied Americans but that Americans spied on Germans. The hype that followed came less from the crime than the realization that America did not trust Germany. Everyone already knew the Germans did not trust the Americans. The hype was also provoked by the realization that Germany had little influence in Washington. Everyone already knew Washington had little influence in Berlin—even Obama´s Washington got more “Nein” than “Ja” from the German Chancellery on everything from monetary policy to Afghanistan.

Accusations abound of America representing a new kind of digital totalitarianism—the word totalitarian often comes up in this conversation as if in pursuit of some sort of moral equivalence. The illustrious Bucerius law school hosted a panel discussion with a retired German Supreme Court justice and a member of parliament under the title “Friend or Enemy? German-American Relations after the NSA Affair.”

The German parliament even established on March 18, 2014, a special “NSA investigative committee” to look into the nature and extent of espionage activities by the “so-called Five Eyes” (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) since 2001. While all the members voted that Edward Snowden should testify, Snowden will only testify in Berlin, not per video from Moscow. Some members reject bringing Snowden to Germany, fearing that extradition proceedings could follow. Absent Snowden, the American testimony has been limited to a member of the ACLU and two NSA “whistle blowers,” Thomas Drake, who criticized the German BND as much as the NSA, and William Binney. The Chancellery added insult to injury, refusing to provide the committee with all available information about cooperation with the United States intelligence services. After almost a year of work, the NSA investigation committee has revealed nothing new. It has been little more than an expensive charade, a political theater of the absurd.

Having lost all touch with reality, numerous members of the German parliament and the press have demanded that the United States provide a full disclose of its electronic surveillance operations in Germany, that it formally apologize and that it promise that such activity will cease. If ever put to a vote in the US Congress, large majorities of both parties would surely tell such demandeurs to take a hike. Even the “Five-Eyes Group,” again and again jealously invoked in the German press, does not get to see everything. America has always been wisely reluctant to reveal sources and methods—all German resentment at not being asked to join with the other “Five Eyes” notwithstanding. President Obama stated way back in July of 2013, right after the affair broke, that US intelligence activities were entirely appropriate. “They are seeking additional insight beyond what’s available through open sources. And if that weren’t the case, then there would be no use for an intelligence service.” Germans seem to have a very illusory view of how to reconcile the need for intelligences services with their idea of democracy and rule of law. A false contrition is at work, seeing intelligence services as bad, but saying nothing about taking responsibility for the consequences of their absence—historical lessons be what they may.

Even the usually cool-headed Chancellor Angela Merkel has lectured to the spying Americans, saying that “such methods do not fit in the 21st century,” apparently rejecting the notion that in the digital, open-border age of globalization, espionage is more important than ever. In America, spending on intelligence and cyber-security has sky-rocketed, while traditional defense spending has declined. Just as naïve as the idea of espionage as anachronistic is the idea that the NSA is focused on stealing German industrial know how and intellectual property. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Up to now, despite the Snowden data dump, no information has surfaced about NSA espionage helping American industry. At the same time, the Economist has reported that cybercrime cost the world 445 billion dollars last year and the German interior ministerestimated in August, 2013, that cybercrime cost Germans 50 billion euros the previous year. The only thing the NSA seems to have cost the Germans is a bit of pride. And the only good thing about Snowden is Germans´ rising investment in cyber security, even as they deny the identity of the true culprits.

Germany´s chattering classes bemoan an uncontrolled American national-security state without appreciating or even understanding the unique nature of congressional, judicial and journalistic control. The uncomfortable reality that American power is backbone of German security remains a footnote. In the United States Congress bi-partisan majorities have agreed again and again that the US government should have access to phone and internet records—certainly those of foreigners—but also those of US citizens. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled on espionage and due process, with Congress passing required legislative changes. There is no lack of control, even as some Germans divine the ghosts of their fascist past stalking the halls of Congress.

Seeing some sinister “deep state” in the background running roughshod over constitutional checks and balances implies a disturbing gullibility to gutter-level conspiracy theory. It is as far-fetched as the German view that sees hapless Americans cynically manipulated by the likes of Dick Cheney, and thus irrationally, if not dangerously paranoid about the world around them. Of course when three Frenchmen killed a dozen other Frenchman in the name of Allah, hysteria spread like wild fire. What would happen if Europe experienced a real 9/11? America has no monopoly on paranoia.

The Illusion of American Decline
Pontificating from the sidelines about lack of American seriousness is certainly easier than actually doing anything about a myriad of global and European problems that seem to only blind the German Kommentariat. They are left masticating on American shortcomings, ritually rejecting “American adventurism” abroad, the “American model “at home and the “disrespectful” American Homeland Security officials at US airports—all the while flocking to America like never before. It is easy to bemoan the lack of American reform when one holds entirely unrealistic ideas of what that reform should entail. America will not stop its global eavesdropping and America will continue to debate what constitutes torture and what does not, while the purists with no responsibility wring their hands.

Many in Germany mysteriously believe that the United States is ruinously disunited and about to end up on the ash heap of history. This view fails to understand that obstreperous partisanship is not so much paralyzing as invigorating. The history of America is the history of Republicans and Democrats fighting each other to a standstill and then doing what is necessary to make America stronger—all the chicken-little, the sky-is-falling rhetoric from hectoring Germans aside. Even as Germany and Europa face a host of truly insurmountable problems at home and abroad, they spend in irrational amount time obsessing on American inadequacy, from intelligence reform to tax reform. Still, the old truism holds: America is one budgetary session away from solving all its problems. This may be “condescending” but it is true.

In the long European tradition of trashing the 1789 US Constitution, some even claim that America´s fatal flaw is its presidential democracy—as if Britain, Italy or even Germany have anything like America´s enduring success in promoting the national and global policies that are necessary for long-term growth and sustainability. The British intelligence services remain as active as ever, while the British public turns its back on Europe. Germany´s carbon dioxide emissions have risen in each of the last three years, despite much-lauded national energy reform, and Germany is certainly not up to the task of avoiding its own demographic decline—especially being so fearful about compromising national culture with unnerving migrants from Islamic lands.

The Illusion of TTIP
The question of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, known as TTIP, is another theater of the absurd. First, if opening American and European markets to competition from each other was a geopolitical imperative, it would have been done long ago—for example at the height of the Cold War or during any number of Berlin crises. Instead, national markets remained sheltered; protectionists ruled the roost. So why would Congressional majorities now vote for opening access to American markets? Why would none of 28 national European Union governments not now veto opening European markets? As if there are not enough angry people in Europe.

Second, even without a new trade and investment pact, transatlantic trade and more importantly transatlantic investment have grown by leaps and bounds since the fall of the Berlin wall. The United States and Europe remain the motor of globalization. US sales in Europa from exports and foreign affiliates, at 6.2 trillion in 2012, dwarfed those in all of Asia, at 4.1 trillion, reports the Johns Hopkins University. The failure of TTIP will not stop this relentless search for synergy and profitability across the Atlantic.

Third, it is ridiculous to think that the American Congress will bow to European demands for consumer protection. Europe may have its problems with giants like Apple, Amazon or Google, but TTIP will provide no relief. That will only come from serious investment. Competing with American giants is not cheap. Think of the cost overruns of the aim-for-the-stars Airbus A-400M military transport. TTIP will not reign in American aerospace, robotics, pharmaceuticals, or energy sectors. And by the same token, if Germans do not want chlorinated American chickens, or any other American agricultural products, then who is America to say. America is a 21st century agricultural superpower in a starving world. If Europeans want to close the McDonalds and Starbucks, imperial America will not stand in the way. If they want to burn Monsanto in effigy, they can do that too. And if over a third of the EU budget continues to go to the Common Agricultural Policy, they can thank their European agricultural lobbyists for that as well.

Finally, the silly calls for the European emissaries to be tough and hard-headed in their negotiations with the Americans, protecting European interests with mano-a-mano tactics, rests on a flawed assumption—that America benefits from TTIP more than Europe does. TTIP is a German idea, having grown out of the “Framework for Advancing Transatlantic Integration between the EU and the US,” initiated by Angela Merkel in 2007. The new pact was to be a transatlantic NAFTA while reminding the German political class that relations with George W. Bush´s America could be about more than war and peace in the Middle East. The only real interest Americans have in TTIP is that it will make the European economy less of a basket case—the same motivation as with the Marshall Plan.

The Illusion of Equal Rights
Germans are always asking for a friendship, if not a partnership, of “equal rights” and at “equal eye-level.” America has a great interest in taking German concerns into account—more than Germans might deserve—but it is preposterous for Germans to aspire to such equality, much less to make it a condition of transatlantic cooperation. Germany has a third the population, a quarter of the wealth and sixteenth of the defense spending of the United States. If Germany wants to play any role at all in securing its future, it better get up to speed on its relative influence in Washington and around the world.

Germany, aspiring to lead the countries of the European Union toward fiscal austerity and the all-holy “competitiveness” (Wettbewerbsfähigkeit) while running a 7 percent of GDP current account surplus is heading down a dead-end road. Imagine the United States running such a surplus with its American neighbors. If Germany is not to go into deep recession, it will need to remain much more competitive than its European partner economies—all the preaching about the need for Greek, Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese competitiveness notwithstanding. A seven percent current account surplus is also a slap in the face to all the developing countries of the world asking for “trade not aid,” for markets not charity. Germany may have balanced its budget in 2015. But with NATO reporting per capita defense spending for Germany at $505 and at $1946 for the United States, and per capita spending on the German foreign and development ministries at around $140 and US spending on its International Affairs budget at about $160 per capita, it does not seem as if the Exportmeister really feels the need to increase investment in the development and security of its markets—all the German talk of taking on more leadership notwithstanding.

To seek leadership in Europe while trashing the partnership with America is also a dead-end. The last thing the other Europeans want is an overly assertive Germany and an angry, isolationist, anti-European America. Germans may complain about America’s “lack of trustworthiness” and America’s threat to German “sovereignty,” but think of Poland’s view of Germany and Europe and the Atlantic partnership.

It is time for the Germans to reexamine the basis of their partnership with the United States and to remind themselves that without the American market and American power, life for Germans would be nasty, brutish and short. Germans need to get down off their high horse, drop the never-again-fascism and solidarity-with-the-world charade and start doing their part.