The concern of European allies about American electronic eavesdropping on their citizens is both reasonable and unresolved. What it needn’t be is close to panic-stricken.Thus opines John Vinocur in his International Herald Tribune column.
France, with its own remarkably effective intelligence services, approaches the question with very controlled and limited indignation. The Dutch treat the issue next to not at all, in line with their model of centuries of success in avoiding controversy that holds no promise of practical yield.But here in Germany, the political class is in an uproar. The geschrei is of American betrayal, of a government kneeling before the Yanks, and the forsaken state of the unprotected Deutsche Volk.Since Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, dumped his accusations about the N.S.A.’s intrusive reach into European private life more than six weeks ago, Germany’s political Chicken Littles have made it the attention-getting issue in the country’s national election campaign.As a result, politicians have been telling voters they are victims of unlawful scrutiny and taking comfortable, sound-bite roles as accusers of the United States.By way of resistance, the country’s second most powerful politician, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble — in a sly poke that doesn’t exclude Chancellor Angela Merkel — complained that he can’t comprehend the outrage emanating from both the government and opposition. A former interior minister who intimately knows the world of spying and disinformation, Schäuble said, “My European colleagues are not worked up about this. ... How else do you want to track down terrorist networks that operate internationally?”Sharper still was Otto Schily, the Social Democrat interior minister during Gerhard Schröder’s time as chancellor. He dismissed the current German fear of the state as “partially lunatic stuff.”Still, this is a hullabaloo that went into the streets last weekend with demonstrations against official eavesdropping. The shrillness of the moment was exemplified in a petition from 32 writers sent to the chancellor. Drum roll, solemn music:“We are experiencing a historical attack on our democratic state of law that stands on its head one-million-fold the principle of presumption of innocence.”That tone works here. Years back, Angela Merkel said that Gerhard Schröder’s opposition in 2002 to war Iraq was electorally motivated, as was his talk then of “German emancipation” from the United States. He ran and won as an incumbent chancellor that year.The old strategy looks intact. Sept. 22 is election day. And there’s a ready-made, if shaky, we-know-best rationale for Germans’ acute sensitivity: their experience with state surveillance during the Nazi and East German eras.In more incisive and introspective terms, the federal president, Joachim Gauck, was described last year by a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reporter as seeing the country engaged in a continual search for its next big angst. Now the newspaper refers to “partially surreal” notions and “plot theories” to characterize the country’s mind-set.Süddeutsche Zeitung pointed toward a fundamentally deep German problem with America. It wrote, “The star pupil of the postwar years has turned into a know-it-all projecting the worst evil onto their former idol and teacher.”
The language of Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate, goes in that direction: “The government is bowing down before the Americans one more time.” And: “Enormous damage to the German people has occurred. That’s monstrous.”
In addition, Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic Party chairman, accused the Americans and British of “massive economic espionage” and said they and their “helpers” should be investigated by the German authorities.
Merkel’s line of defense is not (à la Schäuble or Schily) to scold those who are casting the country as victimized. Strikingly, she has leaned in the direction of alarm, twice paraphrasing Schröder to needle the Americans with the refrain that Germany did not believe in the law of the strongest but in the strength of the law.
It was as if the United States had intruded on Merkel’s version of Germany’s perfect world, described by a columnist in the newspaper Bild as selling cars everywhere while the Americans do the dirty work. In reality, close contact between American and German intelligence services, involving shared surveillance programs and equipment, has deepened since the start of the Schröder chancellery in 1998.
John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, offered this frame of reference: “Factual and unemotional are rarely used words used the characterize discussions within Germany society. Germany has yet to rebuild a foundation of self-confidence which makes it possible to view challenges as tasks rather than emotional crises.”
“The next emotional outburst against America is probably just around the corner,” he said.