Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach

Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.

The op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, written by Jacob Heilbrun, was entitled “The German-American Breakup.” The word “breakup” is unequivocal, or almost. After an overview of various German commentaries, Heilbrun ends with this admonition:

“If Obama is unable to rein in spying of Germany, he may discover that he is helping to convert it from an ally into an adversary. For Obama to say Auf Wiedersehen to a longtime ally would deliver a blow to American national security that no amount of secret information could possibly justify.”

If Heilbrun seems to have little hope that his viewpoint will be heard in Washington, it pales before the lead article in Der Spiegel on the same date. The long article is entitled “Germany’s Choice: Will It Be America or Russia?” One section of the article is entitled “The Last Straw.” It cites not someone on the left or someone who has long advocated closer relations with Russia. It cites instead a conservative advocate of the free economy and of rocksolid relations with the United States, who chairs an organization called Atlantic Bridge. In a tone of desperation, he says: “If [the latest allegations about spying] turn out to be true, it’s time for this to stop.” Note that the article says it’s time for it to stop, not that it’s time for further discussions or negotiations about it. Just stop.

One last poignant detail: The U.S. ambassador to Germany speaks no German. The Russia ambassador is so fluent one scarcely notices his accent. Entrance to the U.S. Ambassador’s office is protected by the highest-level security possible, surpassing that which governs the entrance to the White House’s Oval Office. Entrance to the Russian embassy is so casual that it prompts disbelief.

Is this unprecedented breach so sudden and so unpredictable? By now, every major or minor paper in Germany, the United States, France, Great Britain and elsewhere is featuring the story, analyzing the causes, and preaching the solution. Above all, most articles are searching for whom to blame. The principal suspects are the National Security Agency (NSA) and President Obama. But is it simply the unwise decisions of the NSA or of Obama? In other words, could it have been different? Well, surely in detail. The U.S. government has been stupid and very clumsy. However, the problem is structural and not the passing mistakes and stupidity of those in power in the United States.

The basic problem is that the United States is, and has been for some time, in geopolitical decline. It doesn’t like this. It doesn’t really accept this. It surely doesn’t know how to handle it, that is, minimize the losses to the United States. So it keeps trying to restore what is unrestorable – U.S. “leadership” (read: hegemony) in the world-system. This makes the United States a very dangerous actor. No small number of political agents in the United States are calling for some sort of decisive “action” – whatever that could possibly mean. And U.S. elections may depend in large part on how U.S. political actors play this game.

That is what Europeans in general, and now Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in particular, are realizing. The United States has become a very unreliable “partner.” So even those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who are nostalgic for the warm embrace of the “free world” are reluctantly joining the less nostalgic others in deciding how they can survive geopolitically without the United States. And this is pushing them into the logical alternative, a European tent that includes Russia.

As the Germans, and the Europeans in general, move inexorably in this direction, they have their hesitations. If they can no longer trust the United States, could they really trust Russia? And, more importantly, could they make a deal with the Russians that the Russians would find it worthwhile and necessary to observe? You can bet that this is what is being discussed in the inner circles of the German government today, and not how to repair the irreparable breach of trust with the United States.