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. 

Now, it would be easy to dismiss this inability to find a consequential means of rebuking the United States as a symptom of a deeper German unwillingness to hold the United States (or anybody else) to account for much of anything. When the United States, France, and the United Kingdom all agreed, for one brief shining moment earlier this year, that Bashar al-Assad should be subject to military reprisal for his use of sarin gas against his own people, Germany was opposed—but without consequence. Opposition without consequence also characterized the German position on Iraq in 2003. When NATO agreed to conduct military operations in Libya in 2011 as Qaddafi’s forces were on the verge of wiping out the rebel stronghold, Germany didn’t participate, notwithstanding a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. But Germany also didn’t block NATO action, which in principle it could have.

But it’s not simply a lack of will. The real point is that the United States and Europe are so thoroughly enmeshed with each other by now that it is hard to think of any action any one party to the relationship might take to harm the other without inflicting significant or greater damage on itself. The economic relationship is vast and growing. Moreover, all the relevant governments and international institutions seem to see greater benefit to ever-increasing integration. 

Security and intelligence cooperation is longstanding and interest-based, particularly at the classified level of counterterrorism policies. Although there is and will continue to be ample disagreement when it comes to concerted action outside the Euro-Atlantic area—including disagreements within Europe, as well as over a joint U.S.-European “foreign” policy—it’s equally remarkable how much agreement is possible when top-level officials bother to make the effort. 

So when the Obama administration is inattentive to Europe (a consistent European perception, especially in light of the “pivot” to Asia) or highhanded with Europe (as in demanding payment from allies for U.S. services in the Libya operation) or insensitive to European concerns (as in the abrupt cancellation of politically sensitive missile defense systems set for Poland and the Czech Republic, or the continued operation of Guantánamo) or on the sidelines in deference to  European initiatives (as in the run-up to Ukraine’s 11th-hour rejection of an Association Agreement with the EU), the preferred solution on the European side is inevitably more America, not less. The most salient response to the NSA’s German problem has been a call for greater German inclusion in cooperative intelligence work. Some have even proposed that Germany join the longstanding “Five Eyes” intelligence cooperation program of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Needless to say, a regime of greater intelligence cooperation with the United States is not exactly the outcome the German NSA scandal-mongers were promoting. There’s also the very interesting question of how well Germany’s publicly articulated Kantian scruples about a world of law would sit with a more forward-leaning German stance on intelligence capabilities and covert action. In fact, that’s probably already a good question based on existing German capabilities and practice, albeit one many Germans would prefer not to explore. But if you had to wager on a five-years-later scenario for the NSA revelations, a bet that intelligence cooperation between the United States and Germany will increase in that period would be smarter than a bet on the proposition that snooping on Merkel’s cell phone so damaged relations that the two sides decide to disengage.

So the crisis is canceled. Europeans these days are mainly disappointed in Obama, or in themselves for their unrealistic expectations about Obama. Meanwhile, U.S.-European relations are on a far more even keel than makes for good op-eds or conference panels. And the sense of noncrisis among American commentators with regard to the United States and Europe—notwithstanding Obama-era inattention, ham-handedness, insensitivity, and worse—is actually about right. 

Not that this accidental good sense is likely to prevail in assessments of the next Republican administration.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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