Germany and America: Headed for a Divorce?

Germany and America: Headed for a Divorce?

Both nations have different views about where the balance between liberty and security should be struck.

It’s not so much the danger from Russia that is worrisome to Germans as it is the deep skepticism over finding an acceptable formula, in the absence of the Americans, for a European security structure. The U.S. insertion into Europe via NATO took security questions off the table for the European Union; Germans doubt that any kind of consensus could be achieved on a new blueprint, and feel existential dread over the possibility that they should be the ones to provide it. It would, they fear, put more stress on the EU than it could handle, encouraging division. Of course, this is a sensible conservative attitude toward a set of arrangements that have proven very satisfactory on the whole, but it does not show that the European balance would be seriously threatened if the United States were to exit. Imagine a sequence of events in which Germany told the United States to shut down the “nest of spies” at the U.S. Embassy, and the United States responded by removing all U.S. forces from German territory. One would hardly expect the European world to collapse under those circumstances. It might be healthier for both parties. The point will be controversial but I think it expresses a basic truth: if it had no other alternative, Germany could close its eyes, tap its slippers three times, and reconstitute the old European concert in short order, with nary an American soldier or airman in sight.

The Germans are thinking dimly about going there because they are thinking about getting a divorce from the United States. They do not think they are in a position to do so, as presently circumstanced, though that sentiment may change. In the meantime, the Germans have an important choice to make. The United States and Germany have profoundly different views over where the balance between liberty and security is to be struck, but it matters greatly whether Germany makes this only a question within the bilateral relationship with Washington. Much larger questions are at stake.

Make no mistake, the aspirations of the American national-security establishment do pose a profound threat to human rights throughout the world. The NSA, notes the New York Times, is “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations. It spies routinely on friends as well as foes.” In Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we learn that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence. . . .” The concern vouchsafed in the Fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution—“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”—shows that concern with privacy and with the protected autonomy of the individual were hardly new principles in 1948, but rather an old American (and English) principle making a plea to be considered as central to international law.

The worst feature of America’s own domestic debate on the NSA’s surveillance has been the almost exclusive focus on the rights of Americans, as if the threat to the liberty of others was outside the remit of our concern. Given America’s professed devotion to human rights, this can only go down in the rest of the world as rank hypocrisy. As President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has observed, the NSA’s activities are breaches of international law and “an affront to the principles that must guide the relations” among independent nations. From every indication we have, Angela would agree with Dilma’s eloquent plea that “the right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.”

The spirit of liberal democracy was communicated to Germany after its defeat by America in 1945. The flame burned brighter still after the collapse of Communism, and does so yet today. Merkel learned her loathing of blanket surveillance growing up in East Germany. Alas, appreciation of liberty’s meaning has flown the coop among the supporters of Washington’s security apparatus, if not exactly in all of the United States. America fought the totalitarians and the terrorists for so long that it succumbed, through prolonged contact, to the very virus it sought to combat. The doctor saved the patient, but he himself grew sick. The American state has become thick with an apparatus of universal surveillance that stands, in its pretensions and its absence of controls, as a profound threat to human liberty.

It is said that states are cold monsters, that they know nothing of gratitude and are incapable of friendship. That idea is now solidly ensconced within America’s intelligence apparatus—it goes by the name of “tradecraft”—but we should remember that the relationship between America and Germany, over many decades, showed the contrary. It showed that the things often seen by cynics as the least important—the moral community between the two states and peoples over basic principles of political life—could at many moments seem on both sides to be the all in all. It would be very encouraging were Germans to act on that idea today. That would put them in a rousing fight with the American government over universal surveillance, but would leave the American people in their debt.

It is vital, however, that Germany not make an issue about itself alone, and the worst outcome would be for Germany to cozy up to the spy machine on the condition that it is left inviolate. Let us hope that Washington will persist in its claim to keep as potential targets of surveillance everybody in Germany except the Chancellor, a policy whose absurdity seems no guarantee against its persistence. That would push Berlin in the desired direction, and enlist it in a cause much greater than itself.


David C. Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author of Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (University Press of Kansas, 2003). His blogs include IR and All That, Energy Predicament, and What They Think.