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Wake up, Washington!

Michael KniggeJuly 11, 2014

Berlin’s drastic step to expel the CIA station chief in Germany is a desperate attempt to finally get Washington’s attention. The Obama administration should heed the call to avoid wrecking German-American relations.

World Cup 2014 - Public Viewing in einer US Kaserne
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The German-American partnership is a bond that's tough to break. It has weathered numerous storms during the Cold War period and since, such as the split over the Iraq War.

But, the ongoing crisis over US intelligence gathering and espionage in Germany and on Germans sparked by the Snowden revelations one year ago has the potential to unravel the German-American partnership.

That's not to say that transatlantic ties have not been declared passé in regular intervals at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They have.

But this time it could be different. Here's why:

Deutsche Welle Michael Knigge
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

When the US ambassador to Berlin is summoned several times over just a few days, it's a sure sign that things are bad.

When top German politicians from both major parties condemn US behavior in unison in uncommonly stark language, it's a sure sign that things are bad.

And when Chancellor Angela Merkel who is certainly not prone to emotional reactions, but who has calmly, some would say almost stoically, endured the year-long drip-feed of damaging disclosures about US surveillance activities against her personally and against Germany signed off on the expulsion of the CIA's top spy in the country, it's a sure sign that things are really bad.

Not an inch from Washington

To ascribe the blame for political failure is often more complex than it seems, but not in this case. The fact is that, until now, Washington has done nothing substantial to at least try to mollify German concerns and sentiment since the beginning of the crisis a year ago. The notion of how to possibly ameliorate German worries apparently has not even occurred to decision makers in Washington.

Judging by its response to German concerns, the Obama administration's stance can be summed up in three words: recalcitrance, callousness, ignorance.

The German government ultimately did not even demand much. Early on, after news broke that the US was listening to the chancellor's phone some kind of sign of regret or understanding – not even an official apology – would have gone a long way. Instead, the White House stayed mum and sent two Congressional backbenchers to Berlin.

Business as usual

Later on, Berlin's reaction to Washington's rejection of its – unlikely – idea of a no-spy agreement was also restrained. Instead, the German government simply went along with a project called cyber dialogue, essentially a fig leaf for doing nothing, between both countries. Just days after its inaugural event, though, the new spy cases destroyed much of the remaining trust between both countries.

Apparently, even with Handygate making global headlines, the Obama administration did not bother reigning in its spy services in Germany – even just temporarily – until the crisis subsided to avoid further damage. That would have been a pragmatic and prudent step that would not have cost the US any political capital and would not even have changed anything.

Negative image

But that requires knowledge about the situation in Germany and political guidance and will in Washington, all of which is apparently in short supply.

The German-American partnership is on a dangerous trajectory. Trust in the US by Germans, according to new polls, is at a low point. That is, of course, only a snapshot. More worrisome, is the realistic possibility that post-Cold War generations of Germans grow up with a predominantly negative view of the US, fueled by the Iraq War and the NSA scandal. Washington should not let that happen.