Germany's NSA Naivete

Obama should have been firmer on the necessity of digital surveillance.

There are more than a few German words that have been adopted straight into English without undergoing the baptism of a translation—Autobahn, Kindergarten, Angst, and Schadenfreude. Since the past weekend a new one should be added, namely, the term Fremdschamen. Its a verb that means to remain passive but so flagrantly that others become embarrassed for you because your passivity causes them such profound embarrassment. Recall the appearance of Colin Powell before the UN Security Council in which he declared beyond a shadow of a doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Now a fresh example can be added: On late Saturday night Barack Obama gave a fifteen minute interview on German television that piled on one embarrassment after another. German television never asked the White House for the interview. Rather, the National Security Council asked for it. The goal was clear: a charm offensive because of the spying scandal in Germany. The president pleaded for understanding for the practices of the NSA. He acted contemplative, feeling himself, you could say, into the feelings of the Germans. He declared that he could not allow the relationship between Germany and America to be damaged through surveillance. The interview reached its highpoint with Obama's characterization of himself that is surely unique in the history of the presidency. He announced that he is not the ruler of the world. No, he's an average guy. Obama said that he is only "one man, one person," in a long "process." This sort of self-pity is no substitute for policy.

Indeed, it availed Obama nothing. Quite the contrary. On the Monday after the interview, the tenor of the German media was pretty much uniform: too vague, too little, no change in course. Obama, it was said, remains a paranoid marionette of the American national-security state. Now is the time to after America: the federal prosecutor's office wants to institute as quickly as possible an inquiry into American spying.

What a PR debacle for America! Obama presented himself to the German public as a penitent sinner—but he remains unforgiven. On the contrary, the German public takes great satisfaction that Obama, after a period of hesitation, has finally conceded the diabolical nature of America's spying activities. This concession was apparently assisted by the example of the Germans who try to keep their own personal data as private as possible from government scrutiny.

If Obama had retained the courage of his convictions, he would have taken a different course, one that explained the simple realities of international relations to his German interlocutors and listeners. Which is to say that he he would have said something like: "Dear Germans, welcome to the brave new world. A world of choices, some of which have to be made, even if you don't like choosing." What he didn't want to shatter is the illusion, rife among many Germans, that it can become a big Switzerland, immune to great-power machinations. That it can return to the fairy-tale land of the eighteenth century, when Germany consisted of hundreds of sleepy little kingdoms and principalities and duchies.

No, Obama could have said, those long days are long behind us all. We live in a modern world in which computer viruses and worms can crash stock markets, cause mass panics, and so on. It's no accident that in March 2013 the American security services came to the conclusion that cyber warfare represents a bigger threat than either Al Qaeda or terrorism. It almost goes without saying that America has already been the target—Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories, and NASA came under assault during what Washington called "Titan Rain." Then there was the attack on Estonia in April 2007, when hackers shut down web sites, the parliament, banks, and radio stations. "Web War 1," as it became known, prompted emergency meetings in Brussels and the Pentagon. Last but not least, "Stuxnet" once more showed the power of computer worms, probably costing Iran a setback of about two years for its nuclear program.

Let's face it: everyone is investing in cyber warfare, whether its India, China, North Korea, Pakistan or Israel. Indeed, it has just been revealed in Germany by the Federal Office for Information Security, to general consternation, that the passwords to some sixteen million email accounts have been stolen by hackers. Well, lah-de-dah. Maybe this will prompt Germans to stop pretending that they can live in splendid isolation from the bad things that are happening in cyberspace. Meanwhile, Beijing and Pyongyang can only be watching with delight at the pressure that Edward Snowden is exerting on Obama to offer concessions about spying. If the president keeps portraying himself as a minor figure, he will never be able to exert major influence to stand up to the pressure.

Malte Lehming is senior editor of Der Tagesspiel, a daily newspaper in Berlin. This is a translation of a piece that ran in Der Tagesspiel.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Richard Huppertz. CC BY-SA 3.0.