Events in Ukraine and the falling-out with Germany underscore why the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia was a bad idea, William Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany tells DW.
William M. Drozdiak is president of the American Council on Germany, a leading US organization dedicated to promote transatlantic dialogue. Earlier he worked for two decades as editor and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post including stints as chief European correspondent and bureau chief in Berlin and Paris.
DW: The ongoing spying scandal between Germany and the US has led to a vigorous debate about how to rebuild German-American relations. But perhaps that is the wrong approach. Why shouldn't we acknowledge that times have changed since the end of the Cold War, that both countries have very different perspectives on many important issues and that US-German ties may simply be overrated in today's globalized world?
William M. Drozdiak: I think there are some misconceptions on both sides, partly because of our different security concerns and our recent histories. For example, the Germans make a big issue of the fact that they have a special sensitivity to data privacy because of the Stasi and the Nazi historical legacies.
But from what I can see in the German media here in the United States there is not that much coverage about the vigorous debate that's going on here about the intrusive nature of the National Security Agency. It's not just Republicans or Democrats, it really cuts across all lines. There is a great controversy that is taking place here that I think will result in stricter laws that will limit the role of the NSA in the future.
Second, just as I mentioned the sensitivity on the German side due to their history, I don't think enough attention is being paid in Germany to how Americans are still traumatized by the attacks of 9/11. It was 13 ago years when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon and more than 3000 Americans and foreigners lost their lives. And a lot of the spying that goes on is directed to preventing a future terrorist attack.
And Americans, even those who don't know much about Germany, are aware of one fact and that is that several of the key perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks came from Hamburg. So I think this is partly the justification used by the espionage community in the United States, why they have to spy on Germany. Now it's obvious that they have gone way to far when they are tapping into the cell phone of the chancellor and I think most Americans would agree with that. But this is part of the reason why there has been a failure to come to a meeting of the minds between Germany and America on this subject.
Again just to play devil's advocate, what's wrong with the argument that times have changed and traditional US-German ties are overrated in today's world?
It could be. The United States have very close ties with Israel, in some cases even closer ties than with Germany due to the military aid and the close cooperation between both countries. And yet the fact is that Israel continues to spy on the United States. Just look at the Jonathan Pollard case. Israel is trying to press for his release, but the US has refused and given him a life sentence. That's because his leaking of secrets led to the death of some Americans. And similarly I am sure that the US spies on Israel.
France of course is notorious for spying. They have some of the biggest industrial espionage efforts going on here in the United States. They are trying to learn trade secrets. The Paris Air Show is coming up and every Boeing executive is told to not keep his papers in the hotel room or they will be stolen or photographed by the French. So this goes on even between close allies.
And yes to a certain extent we should accept this as one of the grim truths of everyday life that if spies can get away with it they will do so. Even if President Obama says when I need to know something I pick up the phone and talk to Chancellor Merkel, the espionage community will say we need to verify what she really thinks. We need to get other opinions and perspectives. So I think this is going to continue and more recently the US ambassador to Germany offered to make Germany part of the five eyes agreement, but the Merkel government said no. So we are back to square one.
Washington's official reaction to the unprecedented expulsion of its top CIA official in Germany was restrained so far. You head a leading American organization dedicated to promote dialogue and understanding between Germany and the US. What's your sense of the political mood now in Washington vis-à-vis Germany?
I think it has been something of a wake-up call. We from the American Council on Germany have tried to promote dialogue and understanding over the years between the United States and Germany because we think this partnership is vital in many respects. You just have to look at the issues we are working on together, whether it's Iran, the Middle East crisis, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. So Germany and the US really represent the key leaders of the Western democratic community. And if we in the West are going to sustain our values of free market democracy in the future versus authoritarian regimes like those in Russia and China than we need to work together. But this obviously puts serious strains on the relationship.
So I think in Washington there is now a new awareness by the Obama administration that perhaps we need to pay closer attention to all aspects of the relationship with Germany particularly as Germany has become more and more the undisputed leader of the European Union.
Have you been approached by US politicians and business leaders now to explain Germany's position?
Yes, and I do that anyway on a fairly regular basis since I took over this position ten years ago. I have consulted over the years with members of Congress and leading officials in the Obama administration and pressed home exactly that point. In fact, I specifically said when President Obama announced the pivot toward Asia three or four years ago that this was a mistake and that we need to continue to emphasize the importance of our Western alliance through Nato and Germany and the European Union. I said that turning completely away from Europe towards Asia would be a big mistake and I think the recent events in Ukraine have justified that assessment. And now the administration talks about a pivot back to Europe and away from Asia. So they have become aware of this.
Full disclosure: The interviewer is a member of the American Council on Germany and participated in its young leaders program.