The Magazine

Unhappy Allies

Obama annoys Europe.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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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