Cyber security, Europe, North America

Merkel and the NSA: Diplomatic shock waves crossing the Atlantic

Merkel holds her mobile used for governmental communication during her opening tour at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Merkel holds her mobile used for governmental communication during her opening tour at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover
(REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

The transatlantic relations have hit a low, the deepest in living memory. Whereas the invasion of Iraq represented diverging opinions on foreign policy between several European states on the one side – notably France and Germany – and the US on the other side, this scandal affects mutual trust – the core essence of every fruitful relationship.

The scandal surrounding NSA is not new to us, but it has reached a new level when allegations arose that German Chancellor Merkel was on the list of up to 35 head of governments  whose mobile phones were hacked. Merkel, usually known for her cautious approach when responding to political challenges, took the phone and rang Obama. “Spying on her or her government is unacceptable” was her message – clear and straight forward. Depending on which phone she used, there is a chance that the NSA might have recorded the phone call from the US embassy in Berlin, just a few hundred yards away from the Chancellery. Moreover, the German Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador to make clear in “no uncertain terms” what the German Governments thinks of one their closest allies spying on them. 

Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that “the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the Chancellor” – Carney did not refer to the past. It is safe to assume that the evidence provided by the German intelligence service is credible otherwise Merkel would have been unlikely to take such drastic measures.

German Defense Minister de Maiziere stated that “The Americans are and remain our best friends, but this is absolutely not right”. He further added “I have reckoned for years with my cellphone being monitored, but I wasn’t reckoning with the Americans”.

Similar responses to alleged phone hacking came also from BrazilFranceMexico, Spain. The summoning of ambassadors is a drastic step usually reserved for states that are usually not on friendly terms with each other. Dissatisfaction among allies, let alone friends, is usually sorted out at lower levels. 

To cut a long story short, the actions of the NSA infuriated several major allies and trading partners of the US in a matter of days. It is safe to assume that Russia and China had a laugh behind closed doors whilst the US added yet more scratches to its already battered image.

Digging an even deeper hole

It is also rather surprising that Obama is not proactive at a time when the US is confronted by a united European approach to stop a spying campaign that was unimaginable after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With Asia becoming the new pivot of US foreign policy, there might be less need to keep Europe on side.

There have also been voices stating that Merkel’s – or indeed Europe’s – anger is exaggerated and Obama should go into the offensive.

Mike Rogers (Republican), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claimed that “The NSA has done more to save German lives than the German army has done since World War II”. Just as a reminder for Rogers: 5000 German soldiers are fighting alongside US Forces in Afghanistan to, inter alia, avoid another 9/11. Furthermore, Rogers suggested that the NSA’s eavesdropping is not only of benefit for Germans, but the whole world as the US failed to foresee the rise of fascism and communism due to a lack of America engaging in spying activities:  “In the 1930s, we had this debate before. We decided we were going to turn off our ability to even listen to friends”. Without going into details, his message is clear. Merkel and indeed Europe might be a threat in future. Unfortunately, Roger seems to have missed that the world has moved on in the last seventy years.

Peter King (Republican), Chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism and intelligence, dug the hole even deeper by demanding that “the president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive”. Such an attitude is political arrogance, exceptionalism and a lack of long-term strategic thinking at its best. One wonders how they would have reacted if the Chinese had listened to Obama’s phone conversation. Furthermore, it seems as if some Republicans have still not learnt the lessons from the Bush years. That is, cooperation gets you often further than confrontation.

Good old days - President Obama and Chancellor Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate in July 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Good old days – President Obama and Chancellor Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate in July 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Merkel’s anger was described by some as being merely superficial and part of her political campaign. What campaign? She has just won her third election in a row and enjoys wide support among German voters. In the weeks running up to the elections her Chief of Staff of the Chancellery “declared” the NSA scandal for over. Merkel was relieved to get the topic of her table. If she had wanted to use it to her advantage, she would have done so months ago.

Germans are highly sensitive about surveillance due to their experiences with the Gestapo and Stasi. The mere consideration of surveillance cameras in public spaces causes heated debates. Nearly two third of Germans supported Edward Snowden’s actions. Some Members of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, suggested Germany should grant him asylum. Distrust among officials was even more than evident when Germany’s domestic intelligence agency conducted a low level helicopter flyover of the US Consulate in Frankfurt to take high resolution images of potential surveillance equipment mounted on the building’s roof.

Some US officials do not seem to realise how serious this is taken by Germans – officials and citizens alike. Attempts to downplay the scandal just make matters worse. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel considered the US as a country that stands for liberty and individual freedom. Two achievements for which many East Germans paid a high price are now under attack by a country that claims to represent the epitome of individual freedom and liberty.

What is even more surprising is that the cost-benefit analysis of spying on Merkel seems to be deeply flawed. Of course, the US might reap benefits from being ahead of the game in negotiations due to information gathered through surveillance.  Economic espionage, in particular, is of great benefit in monetary terms. Germany’s high-tech military industry ranks third in terms of export behind the US and Russia. Germany plays a major role in Europe and has close ties with Russia and China. It is evident, that Merkel in particular and Germany’s industry in general is of interest to the US. However, they US Government must have been well aware that the repercussions will send shock waves over the Atlantic. The cost might be significantly higher as the benefits gained.

This is not to say that surveillance is wrong or that Europeans do not spy on the US. The US – probably with the support of European Governments – had to tap phone lines to fight terrorism. Let us not forget that one of the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg, Germany. Further, Madrid and London became the targets of terrorism and several attacks in Europe were foiled. NSA surveillance might have indeed saved European lives. However, this does still not explain why Merkel’s phone was hacked or why tens of millions Europeans are being listened to. There is a stark difference between targeted surveillance of individuals and mass surveillance. The NSA seemed to have been issued with rights that go further than what is necessary.

German protesters showing their support for whistleblower Edward Snowden ( REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

German protesters showing their support for whistleblower Edward Snowden ( REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

What’s going to happen now?

The US Government has crossed a line and might jeopardize future cooperation, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This project is not just of high prestige and important enough to go down in history as a milestone in transatlantic cooperation, it is also a major factor to create jobs in countries that have yet to overcome the financial crisis. The NSA – with or without the knowledge of Obama – has jeopardized decades of cooperation that fostered trust between the two continents. Nonetheless, the TTIP might be postponed, but it is likely to be implemented sooner or                                                                                                             later.

Europe will remain suspicious of Obama in general and the NSA in particular, but for the sake of our economies, they will probably sign a “no-spy” agreement, shake hands and move on. However, trust has been broken and the US Government would probably gain more respect by being transparent about the NSA’s actions in the last ten years or so rather than waiting until the media uncovers even more stories. Thanks to Edward Snowden, the stories are likely to be revealed anyway – sooner or   later.

A self-righteous attitude will damage America’s image even further – something that it cannot afford in times of newly emerging powers. Notwithstanding the scandal, the US and Europe will move on together. They have to. But this time, the cost/benefit calculation of the US might have turned out to their disadvantage.

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About Thomas Hauschildt

Thomas Hauschildt works for a London based think tank committed to finding solutions to the social challenges of the 21st century. Thomas earned an MA in Law (Dispute and Conflict Resolution, Distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies and holds a BA in International Relations (First class) from the University of Portsmouth. In addition, he took part in a research trip to Rwanda, focusing on the post-genocide reconciliation process. His interests lies predominantly in the field of conflict resolution, humanitarian intervention and access to justice. Previously, Thomas worked for charities in the field of conflict resolution and international development as well as the German Navy and NATO. You can follow him on twitter @ThHauschildt

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