1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Spy saga

John HulsmanJuly 15, 2014

US spying on America’s most important ally in Europe is not just criminally stupid, but counterproductive, writes John Hulsman. His conclusion: It’s high time President Obama gets some grown-up advisers.

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

John C. Hulsman is president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"If one looks with a cold eye at the mess man has made of history, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has been afflicted by some built-in mental disorder which drives him toward self-destruction."

--Arthur Koestler

Given the extent of the damage that the CIA's myopic spying has done to US-German relations, now is certainly not the time to mince words. Rightly, I have been viewed as an American hawk all of my working life. While wholly committed to the transatlantic alliance, I have not been sparing of the feelings of America's European allies: of their strategic unseriousness, of their free-riding off of Washington's vast defence outlays, of their terminal flirtations with juvenile anti-Americanism.

I have thought and said all these things through the years not because I do not love Europe and Europeans, but for precisely the opposite reason. If the transatlantic alliance is to endure, hard truths must not be shunted away but must be discussed head on, dealt with, and mastered. But, as we would say in America, what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. For it is Washington, and not Europe, that is presently - in the most stupid manner imaginable - endangering the most important alliance in the history of the world.

Dr. John C. Hulsman
John C. HulsmanImage: privat

Two further spying scandals have erupted in Berlin this past week, further tarnishing the already corroded relations between America and Germany. The first (and seemingly more serious) involves the arrest of a member of the German BND, the country's intelligence agency, who is alleged to have served as an American spy for the CIA.

Spying on parliament

The alleged agent seems to have passed on secret papers concerning the German parliament's investigation of the NSA's mass surveillance of millions of German citizens and the tapping of the Chancellor's phone, shocking October 2013 revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In essence, America is spying on Germany's parliament even as it looks into American spying on Germany.

To put it mildly, this is hardly what allies ought to be doing to one another. Following yet another espionage scandal emanating from the German defence ministry this past week, the Chancellor seems to have rightly had enough. In turn - in an act usually reserved for dealing with rogue states such as North Korea - Merkel asked the American CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country.

As Thomas Oppermann, head of the Social Democratic parliamentary group, put it, trust in America's alliance with Germany could 'collapse completely.' Respected German President Joachim Gauck went even further, describing the bungled spying as amounting to ‘a gamble with friendship.'


It must be said: Have the Obama people so taken their eye off the European ball as to miss the incredibly obvious point that there would be blowback from all this, and that anything gleaned from the spying is not remotely worth the political damage being done?

An increasingly neutralist Germany now has a further reason to continue drifting away from America. A July Infratest Dimap poll indicates a mere 27 percent of those surveyed regard the US as trustworthy; even more startlingly a majority now view America as an aggressive power. The Cold War goodwill built up over a half century in Germany towards America has seemingly been criminally squandered in a few short years by the unengaged Obama team.

And what possible treasure trove of information merited placing the whole of the German-American relationship in jeopardy? It is estimated that Germany already shares 80-90 percent of its raw intelligence with the US, what is to be gained by access to the minuscule amount not simply handed over?

Ask don't spy

As Germany is a democratic society, with an almost endless number of newspapers, think tanks, and government outlets explaining in great detail German government positions, why did the CIA feel the need to spy on the Merkel government, when in most cases they could (as I do) simply ask them what is going on?

As President Obama sensibly said in the summer of 2013, when deciding to stop listening in on the Chancellor's phone conversations following the Snowden revelations, "If I want to know what Chancellor Merkel is thinking, I will call Chancellor Merkel." Failing this, reading Spiegel (or Deutsche Welle, for that matter) ought to have done the trick. Instead, as Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere put it, "the information reaped by this suspected espionage is laughable. However, the political damage is already disproportionate and serious."

Worse still, Chancellor Merkel has glumly conceded she is doubtful whether the US will cease spying on Germany even after all the present dreadful publicity and direct German requests to do so. To fail to follow this sensible path is to court irreconcilable political and strategic danger.

Anyone who knows anything about Germany and its history must be aware of the obvious cultural reasons for German neuralgia about secret spying, having survived both the Stasi and the Gestapo in turn. This is not a peripheral issue, either for German elites or for the mass public. American tone deafness over espionage is nothing less than a cancer that could effectively end the vital alliance as we know it between these two great powers.

Criminal stupidity

Beyond the obvious moral issues, the American intelligence community and its political masters have been criminally stupid in not gauging how counter-productive all this is, how little stands to be gained, weighed against calling the German-American relationship into question itself. A Germany more and more economically intertwined with Russia and China, a country already drifting away from America over myriad issues, may be pushed out the door in its fury over American high-handed snooping.

Speaking as a hawk, its time that grown-ups again advise the President, that we heed Germany's sensible demands for friends not to spy on one another, and that we salvage our relationship with the most important country in Europe. As German Finance Minister Schäuble so rightly put it, "one can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity." It's past time to put things right.