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Snowden and German pluck

Volker Wagener / re
November 4, 2013

The question of Snowden's asylum in Germany is a stress test for the German-American friendship. DW's Volker Wagener also considers it a question of sovereignty - one that's probably too much for Berlin to swallow.


The question of asylum for Edward Snowden is a legal one only at first glance. Of course, experts need to clarify how he can safely travel to Germany and also stay here. They also have to consider how to deal with an American deportation request to be filed immediately should the whistleblower enter Germany. But this one-off thought exercise is just the trigger for a major political play that, for the moment, is more to be sensed than seen.

The answer to the question of asylum for Snowden is a test case for Germany's still-fledgling sovereignty. And tied to that is the landmark German-American friendship as well as the question of how much deception you have to accept from your best friend. Just about everything points to the German government merely staging a superficial and theatrical grumbling session, and in the end, accepting the US' spying on Merkel's mobile phone - a politically charged symbol - like the swallowing of a toad. There are reasons for that.

Volker Wagener. Deutschland/Chefredaktion REGIONEN, Planung. Foto DW/Per Henriksen 4.10.2010. DW1_0237.jpg,
Volker Wagener is an editor at DW's Germany deskImage: DW

Getting uncomfortable

When we were dividing the world into West and east - and with it, into good and bad - German foreign policy was easy and convenient. We were always on the side of the US, our big brother. We said yes, occasionally abstained when a fit of courage overcame us, and otherwise, we were subdued and carefree. It was quite understandable. We were an ally that didn't fuss or quibble. It was a mix of post-war guilt and gratitude for reconstruction.

During the cold war, the world was dangerous. But our existence, protected by the US, liberated us from foreign policy responsibilities. And we were well off. We didn't miss anything, and Washington was satisfied with the well-behaved Bonner Republic.

Friendship trap

Today, Germany is a sovereign country. Europe has become more German, our economy is robust and, in spite of the crisis, we're in control of our debts. And the US? The super power is ailing and is fascinating only in its scale. It appears as if we've had of the American ABC of action, burgers and coke. In short: the US is no longer a country to long for from a Berlin vantage point. All the varnish is gone.

During this period exactly, one in which the giant shrunk and the dwarf has grown, German foreign policy continued to work according to the master and servant principle. Until that day in spring, when Edward Snowden made the headlines for the first time. Despite the enormity of the discovery, the American-German friendship was placed above all. Not until the revelation of a ten-year spying program on Merkel's mobile phone did the mood shift. And with Snowden's wish to testify and stay in Germany, the government is trapped.

Mind you, the NSA spied on 35 heads of state and governments. But Germany is the aspiration of the bearer of those secrets, Edward Snowden - not Brazil, not Mexico, not anywhere else.

Best defense is a good offense

In this case, unity appears to predominate. Snowden is not classified as a criminal by us, but as a whistleblower. In any case, he's someone who embodies the fine line between villain and hero. But it's too early for the German government to offer asylum to the 30-year-old American. It just doesn't trust itself enough.

The government will strive for a Solomon-like solution. In his provisional Russian exile, Snowden will be questioned by members of a yet-to-be-founded investigative committee. If this were to happen, the gathered information would already have the character of a stress test for the German-American relationship. It would be minimal form of self-defence, one that follows the principle of pushing back maximally without ever breaking the proverbial camel's back.

In the Balkans, there's a saying for such a workaround solution: the wolf gets full, and the sheep stays alive.

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