US image problem
Deutsche Welle: A recent study by the American Pew Research Center shows that global opinions of the USA as an economic leader are on the rise, however, that it is also seen in an increasingly negative light in Germany and other parts of Europe. How did this increasingly negative opinion of the USA come about?
Karsten Voigt: The slide toward a negative opinion began with former President George W. Bush's wars in the Middle East. Many people believe that the Americans contributed to the instability of many countries in the region, and that the war in Iraq and the conflict in Syria have only exacerbated the problem. The military intervention in Libya, though originally a European idea, is often blamed on the Americans as well. To that, add Edward Snowden's revelations, and the whole of the NSA affair.
Why couldn't President Barack Obama improve Germany's opinion of the USA?
As the German-North American coordinator for the German federal government at the time, I warned about placing unrealistically high expectations on an American president. Because of America's different political culture, and America's role as a super power there was simply no way that he would be able to fulfill them. Of course, the disappointment was all the greater. However, America remains our most important ally. Their values are much closer to ours than China's or Russia's. But there are still differences that many Germans do not understand. Even I have problems explaining American culture to Germans.
What expectations did the Europeans have?
The laws that were enacted to fight terrorism after 9/11 contain many aspects that are constitutionally troubling. It was expected that all of these laws would be repealed by the Obama administration. That has happened in part, due to Congress limiting the powers of the intelligence services. Nevertheless, the inner-American discussion about the balance between security and freedom; that is, the rights of the intelligence community and rights of citizens, deals with these issues in a way that I find problematic. The conclusions don't represent what the majority of German's expect from their own government, for instance.
The Patriot Act and Guantanamo are also viewed critically, and the practice of systematically torturing detainees to glean information about terror networks is especially controversial. In America, 58 percent of those polled support such tactics, in Germany, 68 percent are opposed to them. Why are American and European opinions so divided about this practice?
We don't always have the same hierarchy of moral values. In the USA, some members of Congress have attempted to introduce initiatives to end the use of torture. One of the main proponents trying to force the issue is John McCain, who is normally very conservative, and was himself a victim of torture at the hands of the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, he has been unable to break through with clarity and poignancy because the balance between security and freedom has been suspended - with the approval of the populace.
Does the USA have an interest in improving its image in Germany?
Yes, they do, that is very evident. Here we have a major American think tank that is very concerned about America's image in Germany. Interest is growing in America because they need Germany as a partner for their European policies, as well as in the conflict with Russia and other conflicts along the fringes of Europe.
For the last several years, up until the start of the crisis in Ukraine, America was not very interested in Europe. They were preoccupied with China and concentrated on Russia. Still, they failed to carefully follow developments and problems there closely enough.
How do these developments affect the USA's image?
In the Russian conflict the Americans and the Europeans don't think identically, but similarly. Russian-German trade relations have been intense. Right now between two and three million people who grew up in the Soviet Union live in Germany, many having emigrated here after 1989. So there are still family ties that exist. Nonetheless, Americans and Germans are concerned with the authoritarian developments taking place within Russia, as well as Russia's aggressive policies toward Ukraine, and - at least rhetorically - toward its other neighbors.
The fact that Russia's leadership, and especially Vladimir Putin, have declared that they have a responsibility to protect Russian speaking minorities in neighboring states, is seen as a threat by the Baltic States, as well as Poland and Romania. I am all for strong German-Russian cooperation, but not if that means disrespecting the rights of our immediate neighbors. Because then we would soon be surrounded by mistrustful and ill-willed neighbors. That cannot be in Germany's best interest. In this instance we need close cooperation between the USA and Europe. It is completely normal that we should have differences of opinion though. Europe, especially Germany, and the USA have to work together to develop common concepts.
Social Democrat Karsten Voigt was coordinator of German-American cooperation for the German government until 2010. Before that he was a longtime member of the German parliament. More recently, he has been a member of NATO's parliamentary body and foreign policy spokesman for the SPD leadership.