In the wake of revelations that the American government tapped the cellphone of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, trans-Atlantic relations have reached a low point not seen since the Iraq war.
In fact, the current crisis may be worse: Back then it was a question of policy disagreement; this time, it is a matter of broken trust and personal humiliation, the worst thing that can happen to a political leader.
For Germans, it is particularly painful. We remember well the days of the Cold War, when East Germans like Ms. Merkel were spied on by the Stasi. Again, in some ways this is worse: The Stasi wasn’t our friend; America is.
In International Diplomacy 101, one learns that the most important ingredient of international cooperation is trust, easy to lose but hard to gain. How can Ms. Merkel, or anyone else in the European political leadership, ever trust the White House again?
The problem is not that countries spy on one another per se. Everybody does it (well, many countries do it) with varying degrees of effectiveness and success. But few governments do it to the extent that the Americans appear to have — the tap on Ms. Merkel’s phone began in 2002, long before she became chancellor, and apparently continued even after she was awarded the Medal of Freedom in the Rose Garden a few years ago.
Nor can we deny that fighting terrorism requires huge expenditures and unusual measures. But asserting that only adds insult to injury: Ms. Merkel, the French president, François Hollande, and other allied leaders are surely not among the terrorism suspects.
Rather, the heart of the scandal is bad management and hubris. Normally, when a spy proposes to expose a corrupt foreign leader, or to install a listening device in a foreign capital, his political-risk manager will assess whether the potential damage from exposure outweighs the intelligence benefits.
Apparently, this kind of risk assessment either did not exist or was ignored when the decision to eavesdrop on Chancellor Merkel and others was taken. Given the size and power of the American intelligence apparatus, and the eagerness with which it has been deployed, this lack is truly frightening.
In a personal relationship, the destruction of trust would be likely to lead one or both parties to sever the bond completely. But among countries, particularly ones as mutually dependent as Europe’s and America, such severance is out of the question. The important question now is how to proceed with rebuilding that trust, while taking care not to damage the trans-Atlantic relationship irrevocably.
For one thing, President Obama must find a way to show contrition. Many in Europe understand that it would be tricky for him to issue an apology since this could weaken him and his intelligence agencies. Yet doing so could go a long way in placating irate Europeans.
Besides, if the rift over Iraq has taught us anything, it is that dealing with the continuing dynamics of a developing crisis is just as important as the disagreement itself. Let us not repeat the mistakes of 2003, when both sides did not do nearly enough to prevent the crisis from spiraling almost out of control.
Second, while Europeans may understandably desire some sort of payback, they should not deepen the trans-Atlantic rift by linking the scandal to the continuing negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, as some angry commentators have called for. The partnership is as much in Europe’s interest as it is in America’s, and later on it will be an important means for rebuilding ties once the scandal has passed.
Third, the United States should take the initiative in developing confidence-building measures. One important step could be a trans-Atlantic “no spy” agreement on standards for surveillance and intelligence operations among allies. This would build on a report, adopted by the European Parliament in 2001, which recommended “a code of conduct based on the highest level of protection against intelligence which exists in any Member State” and that a “similar code of conduct should be negotiated with the USA.” Then 9/11 happened.
Finally, European political leaders are not the only ones who believe that the American intelligence community has gone too far; important voices in the United States Congress agree. Discussions between congressional intelligence committees and their European counterparts could help manage and resolve this crisis. In a related fashion, America’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board may also be a potential partner for Europe for taking these issues forward in a bipartisan way.
One step that should be avoided is a proposal, currently making the rounds, to limit the number of accredited American diplomats in any one country to the reciprocal number of that country’s diplomats in America — an age-old diplomatic principle that Europeans, mindful of America’s size and interests, have traditionally not had a desire to invoke.
Retaliatory steps like this might offer momentary satisfaction, and would certainly seem to limit the reach of American intelligence. But because they would be premised on a relationship of mistrust, they would not help repair trans-Atlantic relations.
As tempting as it is to play tit for tat, the Europeans should resist it. If both sides make damage limitation their priority, then over time a sense of trust can re-emerge across the Atlantic.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, was the German ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006.