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Spies who didn't love us

Volker Wagener / nhJuly 10, 2014

Eavesdropping on the chancellor, spying in the intelligence service and defense ministry – the US's desire to know everything is alienating its friends. This is bad news, but it can’t be changed, says Volker Wagener.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany and the US – a special relationship. After the war, the Americans were the friendly liberators: they brought chocolate for children, nylon stockings for ladies, and democracy for everyone. Money flowed from the Marshall Fund, bringing about an economic miracle in our war-ravaged country. The US later protected us and our eastern border. Again: a special relationship, but by no means a normal one.

This history is certainly part of the reason for the uproar over the NSA spies in Germany. Washington has given us Germans so many good things – so we are offended and outraged when our former benefactors turn into perpetrators. We expect systematic spying from the Russians and Chinese. They're not part of our political family, after all. Germans would be surprised if Russia and China were not interested in our political and economic plans and deliberations.

But it's an entirely different story when it comes to our American friends, who are supposed to share our values. We expect them to cooperate and to ask us questions. But they don't. They treat friend and foe alike: They want to know everything, and they go about procuring information in much the same way as they do in Havana and Pyongyang. US spies are here, and active. It's just that we never looked for them. This realization makes us angry because we didn't expect it – and because we can't do anything about it. How naïve of us!

Deutsche Welle Volker Wagener Deutschland Chefredaktion REGIONEN
DW's Volker WagenerImage: DW

Political damage

It's true, of course, that the human category of friendship does not exist in the relationship between states. States have interests. They pursue them using all means at their disposal. They take into account that they will violate laws and risk political damage. And that's exactly what has happened.

The exposure of a US spy in the German intelligence agency (BND) and an informer in the German defense ministry is proof of two things. Firstly, that this kind of snooping is both brazen and politically short-sighted as well as foolish. Washington could satisfy its thirst for knowledge differently. If you have been collaborating with an ally, working side by side for so long, you can simply ask questions if there's something you want to know. One may not always want to disclose every last detail. But it's hard to imagine that Germany would refuse to share everything they know with their closest partners when it comes to fighting terrorism, for example.

Secondly, the US doesn't seem to have exerted any restraint in spying on its foster child Germany. It verges on paranoia. Washington is deceiving its allies with its behavior – at a time of tremendous challenges in other areas. Russia is trying to conquer parts of Ukraine, and the Middle East is once again in flames, to name only two of the current hot spots.

9/11: the turning point

The US is practicing power politics as if there were no tomorrow. It has long since begun to lose its 20th century status as the world's leading nation. Not taking this into account only deepens the divide between appearance and reality. The German government ought to be warning its friend against adopting an excessively hubristic foreign policy.

Much of the scope and style of current American spying activities certainly have their origin in the September 2001 terrorist attacks. And yes, some of the masterminds were based in Hamburg, in northern Germany. A certain degree of mistrust towards Germany has since been an integral part of the American psyche – of the collective psyche.

But this is no justification for all the activities that are currently infuriating the German chancellor and trans-Atlantic experts, as well as the ordinary man on the street. Spying on the German parliament's NSA investigation committee was, quite simply, a stupid move. There are so many easier ways to procure relevant information: by consulting committee members and journalists, for example.

The US should stop behaving like the proverbial bull in a German china shop, and fast. Germany's means of counterattack are limited, because the country lacks the necessary instruments of power. But in the medium term the US already risks the emergence of strong anti-American sentiment – and that in a country that owes it so very much.