Is the U.S.-German love affair really ending?

Posted by Matthew Schofield McClatchy Foreign Staff on November 2, 2013 

Or is German angst that of the kept lover?

— This week’s edition of the intellectual German weekly newspaper Die Zeit devotes its front four pages to the decline in the German-American relationship.

The pages, including a column by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, are introduced with a drawing of a heart, one half painted with the German flag, one with the U.S. flag, snapping in two. The headline beneath it is “Goodbye Freunde” or Goodbye Friends. Die Zeit is considered an elitist and extremely important format for German political discussion. 

Die Zeit’s take on the matter begins by noting: “We were too naïve. German American relations have to be put on a realistic footing now.”

The pages were a reaction to the story in Germany today, the apparent widespread spying of U.S. intelligence service on Germans, up to and including the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the pieces, German Foreign intelligence denies the oft stated notion in U.S. political circles that spying on world leaders is standard practice.

“There is no telecommunications surveillance from the German embassy in Washington,” they quote Gerhard Schindler, president of German foreign intelligence, saying.

Heinrich Wefing, a political editor at Die Zeit, writes a piece headlined "Der Bruch" (or “The Split”) and notes that the problems between the two nations go far beyond current tensions.

He writes that the old adage “whatever happens in America will reach Europe 10 years later” has changed its meaning.

His piece is a brutal critic of modern America:

“In the past, it sounded like a promise. Today it sounds like a threat.

“What are the things we would like to take over from the Americans, apart from a few brilliant TV series, their friendly casualness in dealing with each other and Silicon Valley?

“Their cars? Their health system? Their dysfunctional political system? Their schools? Their debt? The deep social and ideological rift?”

And he goes on to note: “Probably for the first time since 1945 Germany looks at the United States with a feeling of political, economic and moral superiority: We can do this better and we are better.”

Still, there is a current in the pieces that notes German attitudes are a luxury available in many ways because they have abdicated any role in the wider world to their longtime protectors, the Americans. 

Wefing writes: “Only if we ourselves are willing to do more in sinister places, only then we can expect having to take less from others.

“We will only be taken seriously as a partner if we can offer something” in the fight against international terrorism.

The highest profile writer in the section, however, throws cold water not only on the notion of a breakup, but of the current anger.

Schmidt was West German chancellor between 1974 and 1982, when Berlin was the hot zone of the Cold War, and the survival of his nation relied upon the military might of the United States.

“During my decades in politics, I always assumed my conversations were monitored,” he noted. “This went to the point that those I spoke with would first welcome others who might be listening in before getting to the topic.”

He said that to think otherwise today is naive. And so, he calls for a more relaxed reaction to information of the Chancellor’s phone being bugged.

He writes that he ignored secret service reports because they “were partly based on bugging telephones and sometimes on circumstantial evidence and often biased by political stances. Apart from that all over the world people know that the secret service do things that are illegal.”

Still, while secret services are not to be trusted, he writes that the much discussed topic today of political control of spy services is little more than myth. It can’t be done, and hasn't been done. As such, he called the present rage “artificial.” 

“The radio station on the roof of the US embassy is everyone’s talk today, but I call these antenna a fact of life,” he wrote. “The American ambassador probably doesn't know what the NSA people holding diplomatic passports are doing in his building.”

And, he concludes: “My indignation is limited. I never perceived the Americans as more noble than others in the field of espionage.”


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