The Magazine

Unhappy Allies

Obama annoys Europe.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Apparently relations between the United States and Europe are actually maturing. How else to account for the singular absence of transatlantic crisis-mongering over the many, many ways in which the Obama administration has annoyed our allies in Europe?

Ich bin ein irritant.

Ich bin ein irritant.

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Obama sycophancy, you say? The stenographic response to the official administration line among what Matthew Continetti has dubbed a “secretarial” (as opposed to adversarial) press corps? Well, maybe that too. Say George W. Bush were president. How big a deal would revelation of widespread National Security Agency data mining operations directed at our European allies be? How about the NSA listening in on the cell phone of an allied leader (one to whom Bush had unsuccessfully attempted to give a back rub, no less)? Such developments would be worthy of rhetoric about the biggest crisis in transatlantic relations since 2003. Yet Obama’s NSA scandal seems destined to pass from the scene without any such consequence.

Our German allies did indeed get worked up over the NSA story, not least for the reason that the German press corps in this instance chose to throw down a challenge to the press corps of the United Kingdom, the traditional cup-holder for sensationalized and ultimately erroneous reportage in support of scandal-mongering. If Germans thought that the NSA was reading all their email and routinely listening in on their cell phone calls, they could be forgiven, because such were the outraged early reports on the leaked documents renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden disseminated. 

Of course the actual NSA program was focused on metadata collection—not the content of calls and emails, but which numbers and IP addresses connect with each other and when. And of course nobody really cares what kind of consenting-adult pornography good German burghers choose or how often they whisper “mein Schatz” to their mistresses on their cell phones. But these were details that emerged only when the burden of sustaining the inaccuracy became unbearable for the German press.

As for listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone, well, we did that. And we shouldn’t have. True, her predecessor Gerhard Schröder did have a tendency to push initiatives favored by Moscow and, after leaving office, found highly remunerative employment with Russian energy interests thanks to his friend Vladimir Putin. But there simply wouldn’t be anything like that for the U.S. intelligence community to keep tabs on in the case of Merkel, whose actions have done nothing to call her integrity into question.

The United States has not been collecting data only in Germany. France and the United Kingdom were also among the surveilled, for example. Yet their official reactions were rather more muted, no doubt because of the extensive intelligence services they maintain and the activities those services undertake. So the German response was singularly intense. 

Germany’s greatest contribution to the principles of global order over the past two generations has been its insistence on an international politics grounded in law and that nations conduct themselves in accordance with law. This insistence has allowed Germany to develop a consistent critique of others (including the United States) for acting extralegally or illegally, at least in the judgment of Germany. The detention center at Guantánamo Bay was one such American failing, and so was the 2003 Iraq war. The NSA activity falls into the same category. 

Yet the German position in support of Kantian precepts on a global scale also comes at the occasional price of a perception of German naïveté when states fail to act in accordance with the law—especially states (again including the United States) that should know better. In this version of Casablanca, Captain Renault—make it Captain Reinhart—really is shocked that there is gambling going on in the back room of Rick’s Café Américain. It is the law, is it not, that gambling is illegal in Morocco?

There were rumblings in Germany and at the European Union about a need to punish the United States in some way for our lawlessness over intelligence collection. The problem, however, was that no one could really think of an effective means of doing so. Europe could cancel or delay negotiations on TTIP, the mega-deal for free trade between the United States and Europe. But that would be harmful to Europeans, indeed arguably more harmful to Europeans than to the United States, and most harmful to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy. So that isn’t a very good idea. Or Germany could withdraw from the SWIFT mechanism for tracking terrorist finances—except preventing terrorist activity is something Germany takes rather seriously at the level of senior government officials. 

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