Germany's Choice: Will It Be America or Russia?

A close ally of Berlin has been causing significant embarrassment to Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: the United States. The country served as West Germany's protector during the Cold War, but recent allegations of spying on Germany, including

Opinion Articles

John Emerson never stops smiling. On the evening of Friday, July 4 -- Independence Day -- the United States ambassador shook hands on the red carpet at a reception given by his embassy at Berlin's former Tempelhof Airport, which has since been transformed into a park. Emerson greeted his guests with a diplomat's practiced joviality. He faced an endless line of businesspeople, German government officials and celebrities, and although he could be seen sweating, his smile remained unbroken, as if to convey the message that all was still well in the world.

It's been a common scene at recent encounters between American and German officials. But behind the perfect façade, relations are cracking. Even as workers were decorating Tempelhof Field with pennants and small flags last Friday, a report was making the rounds in the German capital that could very well drag relations between Washington and Berlin to a new low.

During questioning, an employee of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), told German authorities he had sold secret documents to the Americans. Given that special encryption technology was found during a raid of his apartment, it seems highly unlikely that selling the classified information was his idea.

This Wednesday, the spying scandal took on a new dimension when investigators with the Federal Criminal Police Office raided the home and offices of a Defense Ministry employee whom officials also suspect may have spied for the Americans.

The developments are only the latest tussle in a relationship between Germany and the United States that has suffered in recent years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already abandoned hope that the United States will come to its senses and rein in its intelligence agencies. During Merkel's last visit to Washington, US President Barack Obama wasn't even willing to commit to a no-spy agreement guaranteeing Germany a modicum of security.

Merkel Fears Growing Anti-American Sentiment

The chancellor did, however, expect the Americans to at least refrain from involving her in any further embarrassing incidents -- she has no interest in seeing a continued rise in anti-US sentiment in Germany, a development that would ultimately offer her no choice but to distance herself from the Americans once again. But that point may have already been reached.

As of the end of last week, the BND had not yet fully investigated the spy scandal. But if the story turns out to be true, it will mean that the Americans paid a mole to copy documents for them, some of which were even intended for the German parliamentary committee set up to investigate the NSA's activities in Germany. It would represent a new level of audacity.

The initial reports alone were enough to enrage key members of Germany's coalition government composed of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- so much so that some now feel US intelligence agencies are capable of anything.

"If it is confirmed that the spying activities against the BND also targeted the work of the NSA investigative committee, it will be an unprecedented assault on the parliament and our democratic institutions," said Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the SPD. By Wednesday of this week, with fresh suspicions of spying at the Defense Ministry, Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, indicated a German-American relations had hit a new nadir and spoke for the first time of "profound differences of opinion" between Berlin and Washington.

The German Foreign Ministry summoned Ambassador Emerson on Friday afternoon, before the Fourth of July festivities began. Employees at the German Chancellery were instructed to restrict their communications with the United States to essential matters. Some in the German government have even considered setting an example and expelling an American diplomat. And nearly a week later, on Thursday, the government in Berlin asked the CIA's station chief in Germany to leave the country. Although less serious than a formal expulsion, the action is still tantamount to a diplomatic kick in the knees.

Is Germany Caught Between East and West?

Of course, this isn't really what the chancellor wants. She would prefer to see the Germans remain firmly rooted in the Western alliance and loyal to their American partners. But she has also noticed how much anti-American sentiment the NSA scandal has stirred up among Germans. The Körber Foundation recently commissioned a study on Germans' attitudes toward German foreign policy. With which country should Germany cooperate in the future, respondents were asked? In a near-tie between East and West, close to 56 percent named the United States while 53 percent named Russia.

Therein lies the deeper tension. On the one hand, Germans are disappointed by the Americans and their unceasing surveillance activities. At the same time, they have demonstrated a surprising level of sympathyfor the Russians and their president, Vladimir Putin, in the Ukraine crisis. This raises the fundamental question of Germany's national identity. In the long run, Germans will have to decide which side they prefer.

In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the issue had become less of a priority because the contrast between East and West, and the polarization between the United States and Russia, seemed to have been eliminated. Germany didn't have to choose sides because there was no real dividing line. But the Ukraine crisis and the NSA scandal have put an end to this comfortable phase, and now that antagonism between the West and Russia has erupted once again, Germany can no longer avoid the question of which side it supports.

According to a SPIEGEL poll, 57 percent of Germans feel that their country should become more independent of the United States when it comes to foreign policy. Uncomfortable questions are also being raised, including whether Berlin's close relationship with the West was merely a transitional phenomenon.

Embassies Reflect a Nation's Image

If embassy buildings are meant to project the psyche of a nation, the US Embassy in Berlin is an effective symbol. The exterior consists of an inviting light-colored sandstone structure with an American flag flying above the entrance's curved glass roof. At second glance, however, the building at Pariser Platz 2 also resembles a fortress protected by barriers, surveillance cameras and bullet-proof glass.

Ambassador Emerson's office is on the fifth floor. Visitors are required to leave their mobile phones in the reception area downstairs and must then pass through three security checkpoints. Even Emerson's press secretary has to deposit her cell phone in a small wooden box before entering the ambassador's floor. His office is secured with a steel door, and the glass windows looking out on Tiergarten Park and Brandenburg Gate are so thick that they would probably withstand a nuclear strike.

Emerson's ebullience stands in stark contrast to the security paranoia surrounding him. He is a jovial former attorney and investment banker from Chicago, who raised millions of dollars for Obama's election campaigns and now, at the end of his career, has been given an attractive ambassadorship in Europe. Emerson, like many of his predecessors, hardly speaks a word of German.

For many years, this wasn't an issue. American ambassadors in the past had no need to vie for the affections of Germans, because it was a matter of course. Konrad Adenauer, the country's first postwar chancellor, opted for the young republic's integration into the West, which culminated in West Germany's accession to NATO in 1955.

As a result of Adenauer's decision, the question of which side Germany belonged to remained off the table for decades. Even after German reunification in 1990, which then US President George Bush passionately supported, the German-American partnership was not fundamentally questioned.

A Sea-Change in Relations

The presidency of George W. Bush was a turning point in the Germans' relationship with America. When then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) openly opposed the White House's decision to invade Iraq twelve years ago, it marked a sea change. Bush justified the Iraq war with a lie and cemented the image of a superpower that believes it is no longer required to abide by rules and laws.

Emerson is not in an easy position. His predecessor had to grapple with the WikiLeaks scandal, in which American embassy cablesdescribing senior German politicians in less than flattering terms were leaked to the public. The excitement had just subsided when it was revealed that the NSA was listening in on Merkel's mobile phone. At the time, Emerson had only been in his position in Berlin for a few weeks.

During a visit in late May, Emerson had no illusions about the public mood in Germany. Anti-Americanism is not a new phenomenon -- many of those who demonstrated against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s or NATO's 1970s missile policy weren't only motivated by a desire for peace. Even back then, members of the German left were determined to send a message opposing the evil empire across the Atlantic. "I'm afraid of your fantasies and your ambition, America, oh America," German musician Herbert Grönemeyer sang on his album "Bochum," released in 1984. His words captured the mood of an entire generation.

This time there is more at play than the usual resentments, given all that has happened in recent years: the Iraq war, Guantanamo, the use of drones for targeted executions, the financial crisis, the NSA and fears of Google. The Germans feel they have every reason to mistrust the United States, an erstwhile friend whom many now see as sinister.

For a time, it seemed as if Obama could close the divide between the two nations. For Germans, he was the presidential candidate they had always wished for: powerfully eloquent and charismatic, sophisticated and not nearly as ordinary and rough around the edges as George W. Bush, the trigger-happy cowboy from Texas.

But to the Germans' chagrin, Obama didn't transform the White House into the United Nations headquarters, not even when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a rush of euphoria only 11 months after his inauguration in 2009. He neither closed Guantanamo nor eliminated the death penalty. And instead of American Special Forces killing foreigners, drone pilots in air-conditioned barracks were checking off names on execution lists signed by Obama.

During an interview in his heavily secured office, Ambassador Emerson says he comes from the financial industry, an industry in which a rule applies that is also valid in politics: "Satisfaction is expectations minus results." Emerson's apparent implication is that Obama was already fighting a losing battle when he came into office -- the Germans' expectations were simply too high.

Emerson doesn't deny that a few things have gone wrong in recent years. But at the end of the day, he adds, the decision to maintain close ties between Germany and the West should be obvious. Which country has a free press? The United States or Russia? Which president takes a stand and is willing to discuss the limits of intelligence activity with the entire country? Obama or Putin? "We share the same values," Emerson says, and that must be emphasized again and again.

The Last Straw?

This may be true in theory, but in practice Europe and America are drifting farther and farther apart. This is even evident to people like Friedrich Merz, whose job description includes keeping the divide as narrow as possible. Merz is the chairman of the Atlantic Bridge, a group that has promoted friendship between Germany and the United States for more than 50 years. At the moment, Merz is busy promoting the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. "The agreement would be a sign that Western democracies are sticking together," he says.

But even a conservative advocate of the market economy like Merz is often baffled by what is happening in the United States. Merz welcomes all forms of political debate, but when he sees how deep the ideological divides are in the United States, he is pleased over Europe's well-tempered form of democracy. Responding to the new spying allegations last Friday, he said: "If this turns out to be true, it's time for this to stop."

America Has Become Unattractive

To put it differently, it has become uncool to view America as a cool place. Only a few years ago, for example, the post of head of the German-US Parliamentary Friendship Group in the Bundestag was a highly coveted one, filled by such respectable politicians as former Hamburg Mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose. Today it is less desirable. After the most recent parliamentary election, Philipp Missfelder, the head of the youth organization of Germany's conservative sister parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), decided to resign from his post Coordinator of Trans-Atlantic Cooperation and assume the position of CDU treasurer in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia instead. For Missfelder, managing party finances took a priority over a once attractive trans-Atlantic post.

He was eventually succeeded by Jürgen Hardt, an affable man who has had little contact with the United States in the past: Before becoming a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 2009, he was head of corporate communications for vacuum cleaner-maker Vorwerk. At least he has experience selling relatively unglamorous products.

Hardt plans to launch a marketing offensive in the United States soon. "I'm still searching for a way to reach as many people as possible," he says. He envisions interviews in American regional newspapers to promote the trans-Atlantic alliance, in an echo of Adenauer's decision to announce Germany's willingness to engage in rearmament in theCleveland Plain Dealer rather than the Washington Post. After that, Hardt intends to embark on a marketing tour across the United States.

Do Germans Suffer from an Excess Dose of Morality?

It's a necessary effort. Many Americans view the Germans the way parents treat an adult son who still lives at home and is reluctant to venture out into the harsh, real world.

The United States bore the largest burden in the Afghanistan war, it must rein in rising superpower China and it accounts for more than 70 percent of the military spending of all NATO countries. The glaring paradox of West Germany's former pacifism was that it was only made possible by the American nuclear umbrella. Now that the Cold War is over, the United States would have no objection to the Europeans taking on greater responsibilities, at least in their own neighborhood.

But this is precisely where the problem begins, at least according to Gary Smith, head of the American Academy in Berlin. Smith, who has lived in Germany for more than 20 years, feels that Germans suffer from one thing above all: an excess dose of morality. He can certainly understand why Germans are upset over the NSA spying on Merkel's mobile phone, he says. On the other hand, he adds, the United States is the only democratic world power, and it faces rivals like China and Russia, which have few scruples when deploying their intelligence agencies. "The Germans are completely obsessed with Merkel's mobile phone, but they don't see the big picture," says Smith.

This is what the big picture looks like for Smith: On the one hand, the Germans are always quick to criticize the minute the Americans apply their military muscle or give their NSA technologists their marching orders. On the other hand, they have a tendency to back off when the situation becomes serious on the global political stage, most recently during the West's military mission in Libya. And who, Smith asks, is expected to stop Putin if he feels the urge, once again, to swallow up parts of other countries?

Germans 'Closer To Russian' Than any other Europeans

Unlike the Americans' fortress, the Russian Embassy embodies a nation filled with longing: longing for greatness, longing to be respected and admired and longing to impress and please others. But it has no apparent need for security.

Anyone arriving at the Russian Embassy for an appointment merely has to press a doorbell and state his or her name. Then a buzzer rings, the door opens and the visitor is allowed to enter the building. There is no identification check, bags are not inspected and there are no security checkpoints. Visitors are not asked to leave their mobile phones, recording devices and pocketknives at the front desk. Security checks could be interpreted as a sign of mistrust of visitors -- and that would be impolite.

The interior is spacious, vast and empty, like Russia. A female staff member accompanies visitors up an enormous black marble staircase, which, as she explains, Finnish Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannheim gave Hitler to be used in a victory monument in Moscow. Sound reverberates in the Cathedral-like domed hall, where daylight faintly filters through a glass mosaic depicting the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin. Everything is oversized and slightly gloomy, the kind of architecture that gives the visitor the sense of being in the midst of a religious service.

Ambassador Vladimir Mikhailovich Grinin walks out to meet his guests through a gigantic banquet room. The rooms are furnished in precious wood, heavy materials and splendid chandeliers -- old-fashioned but tasteful.

Grinin greets his guests in polished German -- the only sign that it isn't his first language is a slight Russian accent. He embodies the close relationship between Germany and Russia, which he invokes during our conversation. Grinin's father and father-in-law fought on the front during World War II. This is his third diplomatic posting in Germany. He was in Bonn in the 1970s and in East Berlin during the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is very familiar with Germany and has kept a close eye on today's top politicians, in some cases for decades. "The Germans," he says, "are closer to the Russians than any other nation in Europe."

For the Russian ambassador, there is no contradiction between East and West. He views the relationship between Russia and the West as a triangle consisting of the United States, Russia and the European Union. And the EU, he says, consists mainly of Germany. "It would be good if the Germans would use their special situation to achieve greater understanding within the triangle," says Grinin. Germany, which understands both the Russians and the Americans better than anyone else, should play the role of an intermediary, so as to ensure "that everyone can find a common language."

'Never Another War against Russia'

During his chancellorship, Gerhard Schröder saw this as Germany's destiny. He believed that the country's geographic location in the heart of Europe gave it a special responsibility. "Germany, as a country in the middle of Europe, was always on both sides; it was always its task to overcome Europe's civilizational tension," says political scientist Herfried Münkler.

For many Germans, the close relationship with Russia that Ambassador Grinin invokes is part of an identity that has developed over time -- and not just in the eastern part of the country. The phrase "never another war" has become part of German DNA. But there is also another version of the phrase: "Never another war against Russia." But Germans' unique understanding of Russia doesn't merely stem from radical pacifism and Germany's post-1945 aversion to conflict.

Russendisko, or "Russian Disco," a dance club held in Berlin's Mitte district for the last 15 years, is usually an indulgent event where the alcohol flows freely. Its founder, best-selling author Vladimir Kaminer, who writes humorous books about Germany written from a foreigner's perspective, is eating a salad with goat meat and says that Russia has always been a dream for the Germans.

He quotes German historian Karl Schlögel, who said: "Germans see spirituality in the Siberian landscape," and notes that there is something to Schlögel's words. Why, Kaminer asks with a smile, do German television networks always broadcast major stories from Siberia every year after Christmas? According to Kaminer, no other country in the world offers as much TV coverage of Siberia as Germany.

Kaminer came to Berlin from Moscow in 1990, at the age of 23, and stayed. One of the reasons his books are so popular is that he is so adept at getting to the heart of the German-Russian relationship. Although his prose seems almost childishly clumsy, it is far cleverer and trenchant than many academic treatises.

"For the Germans, the United States is the evil father who ought to be slugged in the face. Russia, on the other hand, is like a little brother to the Germans, one that has to be coddled."

The Germans and the Russians, says Kaminer, are "all sitting in the same kitchen. We have a shared history and we have made serious mistakes repeatedly." He points out that Czar Peter the Great asked the Germans to help Russia modernize. "Germany and Russia, as neighbors of sorts, will always be dependent on one another."

He has always benefited from the Germans' affection for the Russians, says Kaminer. In addition to his traditional monthly Russendisko in Berlin, he also takes the event to other German cities. He has wanted to give up his role as party host for a long time. "I simply can't listen to the music anymore," says Kaminer. "But the Germans happen to like it." They love these evenings, when the vodka flows, the polkas are loud, the dancing is more exuberant than at other parties and the kissing is less inhibited.

Kaminer believes that the pedantic Germans, who are always thinking of the future, have an underlying yearning for the Russian present, for the art of forgetting tomorrow, and for the wild and unruly character of his fellow Russians. "At Russendisko, you don't need insurance to get up onto the tables," says Kaminer.

In recent years, it's been easy to believe in a good Russia. There was no reason to be fearful: Germany was grateful for unification, economic ties expanded, and it seemed as though Moscow was being incorporated into Western structures through the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council. And despite various difficulties, Russia appeared on the path to a democratic future. Many believed that divisions within Europe had been overcome.

But the Ukraine crisis has called everything into question. "Currently, Russia is not a partner," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently told SPIEGEL. Now Berlin finds itself having to build bridges to a Russia that is increasingly the source of anti-Western and nationalist rhetoric, is intolerant of national, religious and sexual minorities and is motivated by the desire to regain its former significance.

Germans are divided over their relationship with Russia. Those who have always mistrusted Russia now feel fully vindicated, while those who have advocated sympathy for Russian positions are now calling for even greater understanding. In the SPIEGEL poll, three-quarters of Germans indicate it is "more likely" their trust in Russia has "declined." Nevertheless, some 40 percent of respondents said that they would like to see Germany cooperate more closely with Russia in the future.

 

Graphic: SPIEGEL Poll on Foreign RelationsZoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: SPIEGEL Poll on Foreign Relations

For German foreign policy, which has prided itself on a special closeness with Russia, Moscow has become unpredictable. No one knows what Putin's true intentions are. Is he trying to prevent NATO and the EU from expanding farther eastward? Or does he want to rebuild the Soviet Union, the decline of which he once described as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century?"

This difficult new Russia was on display in Berlin in mid-May, when Russian official and Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin attended a meeting of the German-Russian Forum, a lobbying organization similar to the Atlantic Bridge.

The event was titled "Europe: Lost in Translation?" Yakunin, a tall, bulky man with a large, bulky head, portrayed himself as a representative of the new Russian nationalism. "I am Russian," his speech began, "and I'm proud of it." But the kind of Western values he wants Russia and Europe to share aren't the kind that most people in enlightened Christian societies would like to see: anti-Americanism, homophobia and narrow-mindedness.

"The Americans don't even know where Crimea is," he scoffed, calling upon the Europeans to join Russian in a common fight against "totalitarian liberalism." "The essence of democracy," said Yakunin, in a reference to the Eurovision Song Contest and its 2014 winner, Austrian singer and drag persona Conchita Wurst, "is not bearded women, but the rule of the people."

Can Russia be democratic? This question always remains in the background when Germany considers its relationship with Moscow. Hardly any statement in recent years has attracted more attention and notoriety than former Chancellor Schröder's characterization of Putin as a "flawless democrat," seemingly denying his authoritarian tendencies. Pro-Russian Germans are also often seen as having authoritarian tendencies. In a SPIEGEL essay, historian Heinrich August Winkler even accused them of being intellectually akin to the Nazis and their propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.

This is flat-out wrong. Germany can be the country that understands Russia better than others without jeopardizing its establishment in the West. It is not a question of having to maintain equidistance to both the West and Russia, and certainly not one of democracy versus autocracy. Embracing a policy that arises from Germany's central geographic location is not the same as embracing a central ideological position.

Sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas recently warned that Germany is slipping back into a "highly dangerous, semi-hegemonic position." But his concerns aren't justified. Germany no longer has to be afraid of itself. According to international polls, many now view Germany as world's most popular country. The calls for Germany to assume more responsibility are nearly unanimous abroad. During the euro crisis, Germany assumed a greater burden in fiscal and economic policy, and, like any leading power, was attacked for doing so. This simply comes with the territory.

Extracting itself from the Western alliance is not an option for Germany. NATO membership has brought Germany more than half a century of security and peace, and three-quarters of Germans are convinced that it is still necessary now that Cold War is over. The overwhelming majority of Germans do not question their country's ties to the West.

A Special Role for Germany

Still, Germany can make itself more independent of the United States. Schröder's refusal to become involved in the Iraq war was the right decision -- it was a signal that Germany, while remaining true to its alliances, is not willing to participate in a deluded policy based on lies that, as is evident today, has plunged an entire region into chaos. Obama has abandoned Bush's war policy, but not his intelligence-gathering methods.

Merkel could make it unmistakably clear to the United States that she is not willing to accept the NSA's machinations. So far, the chancellor's mild admonitions have not made an impression on Obama, as the latest spy scandal apparently indicates. This is why it would be correct to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Of course, this comes with a price. It will mean that relations with Washington will become very frosty for a while. But Germany can only credibly criticize Putin's policies if it points to the flaws in the Western alliance. At the moment, German sympathy for Putin is partly derived from the sense that the United States isn't much better, and that it is prepared to violate international law if it happens to further its political ends.

Germany has spread its wings in the last 20 years. It can no longer hide behind others. Instead, Germany can lead Europe to an independent political role. It must offer an outlook to Russia in its yearning to become part of the West. But it must also set clear boundaries if Moscow reintroduces violence as a political tool and threatens allies. For America, a Germany that assumes this role may not be a convenient partner, but in the end, may be a source of relief.

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