The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Cost of Spying

August 2, 2014

As my first official post as a guest contributor to the Duck, I would like to take a moment to thank Charli, Jon, and the gang. This really is an honor and a privilege for me, and hopefully my posts will live up to the Duck’s high standard!

There has been no lack of coverage in the United States regarding the National Security Agency’s spying activities. My sense, however, is that the focus in the media and by politicians has largely been on the domestic political implications of the NSA dragnet. The Obama administration has gone to great pains to communicate that the NSA only targets non-Americans. That makes sense, as there are important laws governing surveillance on Americans, and few if any pertaining to espionage against foreign targets.

But the United States does not exist in an international vacuum, and the NSA revelations as well as the political treatment have effects overseas. This summer I had the great privilege of working with my colleague Vicki Birchfield as she directed the Nunn School’s 10-week study abroad in the EU, and in that context I was able to observe some of the international implications of NSA spying up close. In some of the places we went, NSA spying hardly registered. In Athens, for example, we very much got the sense that surviving the economic crisis and damming the flood of undocumented immigrants occupied most of the attention of policymakers and the public.

But NSA surveillance clearly had a significant impact in France and Germany, albeit in very different ways. In France, the response seemed to be the same as many foreign policy analysts in the U.S.: everyone does it. At the French foreign ministry, briefers specifically argued that, because the French public knows France has an expansive intelligence establishment, the revelations about American spying were seen as part of what modern state does in international affairs today. That may be part of why the French government has said relatively little about the subject.

However, the briefers at the French foreign ministry did not argue that all Europeans see the issue the same way. Indeed, they specifically highlighted that Germany saw the surveillance in a very different light. Owing to the WWII experience with the Nazi state and the postwar position at the heart of the Cold War, Germans understand wiretapping and other forms of surveillance in different way. Rather than being just something the modern state does, NSA-style espionage is a sign of enmity and oppression. US targeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel, turning of intelligence and defense officials, and repeated reassurances by US officials to the American public that the spying was aimed at foreign nationals all feed into a narrative that the US-German relationship is not a friendship and alliance between states of shared identity and values, but rather something more contingent and darker.

I think it is difficult for Americans to understand the importance of these issues. During the Cold War, the West and specifically the US were the guarantors of West German survival and in later years served as a beacon for a new generation of East Germans. At a deeper, perhaps collectively unconscious, level I think a strong relationship and friendship with the US as the ‘leader of the free world’ serves as an indicator that Germany has truly left the first half of the 20th century behind. Friendship and trust is the key here. The US has alliances with all sorts of unsavory regimes (Saudi Arabia) but only true friendships with fellow democracies. At the same time, US spying contributes to German disillusionment in the idea that the US really represents freedom and liberty in the world—because spying on friends embodies neither. In all cases, the issue of spying is an emotional one for Germans, linked to their history, identity, and sense of place in the world.

There are indications of this interpretation. Merkel and German President Joachim Gauck have both come out strongly against the NSA spying—in contrast to relative silence in France. That suggests that the revelations about the NSA have a political power in Germany that they do not in France. Merkel also recently expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin, an unprecedented move by an ally. At a briefing at a NGO in Berlin, an interlocutor who deals with German federal officials on a regular basis told us that German transatlanticist foreign policymakers were in tears over NSA spying. Given the nature of the NGO and the briefer’s background, I belief the claim is not hyperbole. Many Germans feel personally betrayed by the United States. That in turn undermines the bonds of shared trust and identity that are critically important for maintaining international peace and stability. This happens not just at the level of policymakers, but also within the broader public. It is here that NSA spying helps fuel the establishment of new systems and narratives through which Germans make sense of the world. These are not kind to the United States, and that has real ramifications. On a range of issues, from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to events in Ukraine and beyond, the United States relies a great deal on generally shared systems of meaning with its close allies like Germany. As those systems come into greater disjuncture, relations and in turn the means for managing issues will come under greater pressure. To exemplify, it is worth asking ourselves what the German response toward Russia’s bad behavior in Ukraine and US demands on Europe would have been had the NSA revelations not occurred. Would Germany see more merit in the US position? Would it in turn be more willing to make the sacrifices US policy demands?

The negative impact of NSA spying is not limited to Germany. In Brussels we heard from Commission officials resentment toward the United States. In the context of TTIP negotiations, some officials wondering aloud as to the point of a negotiating when the Europeans suspect that the United States already knows everything the EU has to offer. Anti-TTIP graffiti in Brussels also suggests an underlying anti-American resentment, exacerbated no doubt by the NSA revelations and the subsequent handling by US officials. Indicators like these are small, but they betray a fraying between the US and Europe that American officials and the public should be very concerned about. No other region on the planet shares as much cultural and political history with the US as Europe. Nor does any other region have as many states that broadly share the US vision of peaceful, liberal, and humanitarian global system. America damages these relationships at its own risk.

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