Beyond Spying: How to Save the U.S.-German Alliance

"To get out of this vicious cycle, U.S. and German leaders would do better to reaffirm their shared interests instead of fixating on their differences."

While Washington fumbled the NSA clash with Germany, Berlin too has had a hand in stoking the heated debate over U.S. surveillance programs. Public denunciations and empty promises of retaliation undermine the vital intelligence coordination to counter real threats to both our countries. We may eventually strike a better balance between security and privacy, but we definitely need a better approach to dealing with each other.

Over the past year, the public debate has occasionally devolved into mudslinging. The discovery of a U.S. informant in Germany’s intelligence service in July led to the rare, public dismissal of a CIA Chief of Station, which led Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to label U.S. spying as “stupid” and another official from Chancellor Merkel’s party suggested throwing out the entire U.S. “digital occupying force.” The disclosures this past month that Germany had intercepted a few of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry’s phone calls have led some in Washington to accuse Berlin of hypocrisy.

The Obama administration has tried to restore some measure of trust since Snowden’s revelations of NSA surveillance last summer. In a public speech by President Obama in January, he announced the “unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas” culminating in the Presidential Policy Directive (PDD-28). This summer, a “cyber dialogue” brought a range of officials from both sides together and the White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, hand-delivered to Berlin a set of “guiding principles” on intelligence cooperation.

The exchanges have helped reaffirm a long-standing intelligence partnership, but German officials say they need more to satisfy an irate public. They point to the 90 percent of Germans who believe it is unacceptable for the United States to monitor either foreign leaders or citizens compared with just over 40 percent in the United States, according to a recent Pew Poll. Yet they miss how similar German and American views are on the need for surveillance against suspected terrorists. And while Germans are adamantly opposed to governments’ bulk collection of Internet and telephone metadata, so too are over half of Americans.                                                                                                                                                                        

Unfortunately, the NSA issue has only exacerbated what has been a steady deterioration in German-American relations. U.S. favorability in Germany has dropped further over the past five years than in any other Western country, reflecting both the high expectations following President Obama’s election and many years of critical media coverage of U.S. foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq, secret CIA prisons in Europe, the Wikileaks scandal and the use of drones in conflict regions. The media will no doubt continue to chase the slow trickle of stories from Snowden’s files, which will only further complicate the relationship.

To get out of this vicious cycle, U.S. and German leaders would do better to reaffirm their shared interests instead of fixating on their differences. Both countries continue to cooperate on a range of sensitive issues, including the ongoing discussions with Russia over Ukraine, with Iran over its nuclear program and the threat posed by instability in the Middle East. U.S. and European officials are particularly worried about the hundreds of their citizens who have traveled to fight in the region. The challenge of protecting our countries from intellectual property theft and data sabotage is arguably just as important to our modern economies. A strong intelligence partnership is vital to addressing these physical and digital threats, particularly at a time when Berlin states its willingness to be more decisive in foreign affairs.

Of course, we cannot ignore the two countries’ very different experiences with privacy and the role of government in regulating digital information. While it is an unavoidable reality that countries spy on one another, whether friend or foe, Germany understands privacy as a basic human right in large part due to its history under a National Socialist regime and the abuses of the East German security services. Germany cannot wish away the tools needed to deal with today’s world, nor can we expect them to ignore the lessons they have learned from a bitter past.

Both need to move beyond this impasse and focus on the broader challenges of data privacy and protection in the digital age. The cost to business of the NSA revelations has been estimated to be anywhere between $22 billion and $180 billion and further action from the European Union on data privacy could put on hold negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There is, thus, much more at stake in maintaining U.S.-European relations than the terabytes of data being stored at the NSA.