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NSA scandal still hurts

Michael KniggeOctober 7, 2014

It's the issue that refuses to go away. In Germany the NSA scandal is not only still powerful enough to derail debates about other transatlantic issues, but it also leads to strange coalitions.

USA flag waves at Brandenburger Gate in Berlin
Image: Adam Berry/Getty Images

The organizers did everything they could to ensure a peaceful conference. The two-day event in Berlin hosted by the German Federal Academy for Security Policy - with DW as a media partner - sounded inconspicuous enough. Titled: "Europe's stability - Germany's security," it dealt with the fallout of the financial crisis for European security.

Panelists discussed the ramifications of the financial crisis for political decision making, how to deal with a resurgent Russia as well as the challenges posed by the rapid rise in refugees fleeing to Europe in the wake of events in Syria and Iraq.

Transatlantic relations and US foreign policy cropped up only once in a while on the sidelines of a predominantly European-focused debate. The NSA scandal wasn't brought up at all - that is, until the very last panel of the gathering, where it gave the conference a bitter aftertaste.

Financial crisis - a chance for the betterment of Europe?

Taking a page from Winston Churchill's playbook - "never let a good crisis go to waste" - panelists were asked to debate how the financial crisis could be reconfigured as a chance for the betterment of European integration and the transatlantic alliance.

The panelists, James D. Melville, the US' deputy ambassador to Germany, Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs for the CDU, and Gregor Gysi, the parliamentary leader of the Left Party in the Bundestag, understandably struggled to find a common thread connecting the financial crisis with the improvement of transatlantic ties and the deepening of the European project.

Bundestag debate 01.09.2014 Gregor Gysi
Gysi asked why the US wouldn't sign a no-spy Agreement with BerlinImage: Reuters

As a result, each panelist focused on a certain point. Gysi repeatedly lamented the failure of the UN Security Council to fulfill its role as the world's decisive political body. As a consequence, he suggested the US, China and Russia should be locked up in a single room and be forced to stay in there until they had solved the world's problems.

Kiesewetter and Melville's comments were more realistic. Kiesewetter urged that with all the debate about a larger international role for Germany and calls to beef up the country's military forces, Germany must first define its strategic interests and have a public debate about the issue.

Melville reiterated two truisms often stated by the Obama administration. One: that not even the United States can solve the world's problems alone; and two: that in global politics, Germany punches below its weight, with Washington supporting a stronger role for Berlin on the international stage.

The debate was flowing peacefully along the broad lines of European integration, US foreign policy and Germany's military and political capabilities, when it suddenly happened.

Led by the moderator, Armin Staigis, vice president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy, panelists were discussing why many Germans perceive a political equidistance between the United States and Russia, a sentiment that goes strongly against Germany's traditionally close transatlantic bond with Washington.

What is the US doing to repair relations after the NSA scandal?

This led Roderich Kiesewetter, who is not only a member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, but also of the German Parliamentary Committee investigating the NSA scandal, to ask his immediate neighbor, deputy ambassador James D. Melville: "What has the US done to try to repair the immense loss of trust due to the NSA scandal?"

"And what signs can we expect in this regard?" he added.

Gregor Gysi joined in, asking Melville, why the US refused to sign a no-spy agreement with Berlin.

Melville, suddenly in the hot seat, struggled to find an answer.

James D. Melville
Melville said the 9/11 terrorist attacks had a profound Impact on the USImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

"I don't think you can overstate the impact 9/11 had on America," he said. "As a consequence, US security and intelligence services were tasked to do everything they can to never let this happen again and to better protect the US and its European allies."

Melville then assured his co-panelists and audience members that it was of paramount importance for the US to rebuild trust and that Washington was working very hard to do just that via high level talks between Berlin and the Obama administration.

What are the effects of those high-level talks?

That, however, hit a sore spot with the audience, consisting of many current and former foreign and security officials. "I am also part of the German public and I have not noticed any effect of these high level talks," said an audience member during question time at the end of the panel.

At that point, it was clear that nothing deputy ambassador Melville could have said would have been good enough to appease the audience.

In a sense, the panel ended up serving a very important purpose for transatlantic relations. It showed that - at least from a German perspective - the NSA scandal is still so painful that it undermines efforts to return to normality in German-American relations.