How U.S. hypocrisy is hurting relations with Germany


A security officer walks outside the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on July 10. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Jacob Heilbrunn argues in the Los Angeles Times that U.S. spying on Germany is leading to a crisis in transatlantic relations.

Now, with the fresh revelation that the CIA recruited an intelligence official as a spy, and the possibility of a second spy in the Defense Ministry, the fury is reaching a tipping point. U.S. Ambassador John B. Emerson was called on the carpet by the German Foreign Office on July 4 about the first incident. On Thursday, Germany ordered the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave. And the brouhaha isn’t going away. German President Joachim Gauck, widely revered … said that if the spying allegations were true, “enough is enough.” Karl-Georg Wellmann, a prominent member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, is calling for the expulsion of any and all U.S. agents. What’s more, leading German politicians are calling for reassessing negotiations with Washington over a transatlantic free-trade agreement that could be vital to the economic futures of both Europe and the United States.

This new controversy perhaps sheds insight on a debate between Michael Cohen, Martha Finnemore and me in Foreign Affairs on the increasing costs of U.S. hypocrisy. Roughly speaking, Cohen argues that revelations over U.S. bad behavior will not have significant consequences for U.S. relations with its allies, because they need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them. Finnemore and I, in contrast, argue that revelations of U.S. hypocrisy will have substantial consequences for cooperation in the medium term, unless the U.S. seriously reassesses its behavior.

What the new controversy highlights is the role of the public. If you believe that foreign policy is still primarily driven by political elites, you are more likely to agree with Cohen’s perspective. Leaders may be highly annoyed by U.S. spying, but they are likely very often to swallow their annoyance in the pursuit of their long-term interests. Hence, if leaders can get their way, they will very often prefer to bury scandals rather than to allow them erupt into controversies. However, Finnemore and I suggest that leaders are more constrained than they used to be. What is unusual about the new leaks is that they are being fed to independent media and hence to the mass public, making it much harder for leaders to manipulate or ignore them.

This seems to explain what is going on in Germany. German political elites would prefer to maintain transatlantic cooperation, but public outrage raises the costs of working with the Americans. As Heilbrunn says elsewhere:

The German political class remains friendlier to the U.S. But it cannot remain deaf to the complaints of the electorate, which is why the pervasive spying on Germany is boomeranging on the U.S.

One of those U.S.-friendly German politicians stresses this point in the Financial Times this morning, arguing that the transatlantic relationship is crucial, but noting that the “German public” is “increasingly struggling to see the true value of the German-American relationship.” Remarkably, given the recent events in Ukraine, a recent poll suggests that while 56 percent of Germans want greater cooperation with the U.S., 53 percent — only 3 percent less — want greater cooperation with Russia.

What this all suggests is that Cohen’s analysis is likely to work well for understanding U.S. relations with allies which (a) are not democracies, or (b) where it’s hard to get the public to care about foreign policy. In these relationships, foreign policy elites, who are cynical and realistic in their understanding of high-flying U.S. rhetoric, dominate decision-making and will swallow their pride if necessary. This doesn’t mean that these allies won’t sometimes stir up trouble — as Dan Drezner says, they will. However, they will not typically be trapped into doing so when they don’t want to by public indignation about U.S. hypocrisy.

In contrast, the declining U.S. hypocrisy reserve will be much likelier to hurt U.S. relationships with democracies — and especially likely to damage relationships with democracies where the public cares about relevant foreign policy issues. Under this analysis, the U.S. relationship with Germany — a democracy which is trying to figure out a new foreign policy role, and which is perhaps the only country in which privacy issues can mobilize mass demonstrations — is almost bound to be extremely difficult. Unfortunately for Washington, Germany is also an extremely important partner, in issues ranging from economic policy to security issues such as sanctions. An unreliable partnership with Germany (which could become more like France) could be a serious problem for U.S. foreign policy. Two years ago, a scandal like this would have been a significant political incident, leading perhaps to a stiff exchange of notes, and some pro forma personnel movements. Today, thanks to the Snowden revelations and their damage to U.S. hypocrisy, it threatens to lead to serious deterioration in the U.S.-German relationship, which wasn’t doing too well in the first place.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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