Broader surveillance was supposed to be about catching terrorists, not about eavesdropping on a German leader who's been one of America's best friends.
Revelations that the National Security Agency tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private mobile phone have made a big impression here in Brussels and across Europe. They have given concrete form to a long-held European suspicion: that sometimes when America talks about protecting the West from terrorism, it really means conducting surveillance for its own economic and political advantage. It turns out that it's not about your security, this example seems to say; it's about our prosperity.
Europeans conduct surveillance themselves, and it's possible they would do more if they could. Perhaps some of Europe's outrage is just envy of advanced U.S. surveillance technologies, as former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has suggested. But what cannot be denied is this latest revelation of spying has provoked a visceral European reaction of frustration and disgust.
Born in Kentucky, I have lived in Europe about for a decade. I've seen relations between the U.S. and Europe ebb and flow and I've begun to wonder if this latest scandal doesn't mark a shift in the tide. Do Europeans and Americans still share the same values? Is the coalition of nations that we call 'the West' gradually breaking apart?
Two points, I think, are important to understanding the European response to invasive U.S. surveillance: a shift in values and a shift in power.
First, the shift in values. The NSA revelations cannot be seen in isolation. They come at the tail end of at least a decade of evolving differences in what Americans and Europeans are willing to do to preserve their security. The use of torture as an interrogation technique; Guantanamo Bay; secret prisons on European soil; the quotidian use of drones as a tactical shoe-in for the lack of a responsible or coherent strategy for dealing with violent extremism; the seemingly wild brinksmanship of U.S. politics and the perception that American life is a gun-infested no-man's-land -- all these things have chipped away at European trust in our competence and good intentions. Not long ago, many Europeans thought of America as a country to emulate. Some still do. But for others, we're almost a cautionary tale. It all begs the question: What values, exactly, do we share?
Next, the shift in power. It is significant that we're talking about Chancellor Merkel. From the rubble of the Euro crisis, Germany has emerged as Europe's unchallenged central power. Through its actions, the country has made its case for European hegemony without daring or even desiring to articulate it. Today Germany is like a huge pleasant powerful man with a thin squeaky voice trying to be very, very polite. He'll listen to you; he will address your concerns; he will try very hard not to offend; he will do almost anything you ask of him. But his sheer enormity -- at least in the European context -- means that when he takes a step, his fellows will move to the side. It's not his fault. He's just so big.
It is often remarked upon in European circles that German power is possible only as long as the Germans do not wield it too blatantly. These days could be coming to an end and in a way that has made German power more, not less, attractive. Two years ago, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski famously said, "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity," and the implications of that statement continue to echo through European politics.
It is in this context that Germany's reaction to U.S. surveillance must be understood. By calling out the NSA, Chancellor Merkel is speaking out not for German nationalism, but on behalf of European pride and ideals. This is not a quarrel over interests, but a clash of values. It suggests that Europe and America have different visions of what a peaceful and prosperous future would look like. As such, it strikes at the heart of the transatlantic relationship.
So are Americans and Europeans drifting apart?
My sense is not yet. For all our differences, our values are still far more similar than those between, say, Europe and China. It can be argued, in fact, that the American bond with Europe allows Germany to exercise a soft, quasi-hegemonic influence on the continent. Were that bond removed, ancient rivalries and grievances could well re-emerge.
That said, we Americans could do more to improve relations with our closest allies. A good start would be to take European concerns about surveillance more seriously. It is no doubt true that some European states have formidable surveillance operations of their own. But as we Americans learned in school, 'everybody does it' is not a legitimate or inspiring justification for reckless behavior.
In this regard, the petulant and defensive tone struck by some NSA defenders is not encouraging. For example, Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said a week ago that the French would be 'applauding and popping champagne corks' if they understood how our surveillance benefits their security. This was not an intelligent thing to say. The French aren't popping champagne corks; they're creeped out, whether their concerns are justified or not. Above all, they don't like feeling that they're being fundamentally misled, and that surveillance done in our national interest somehow keeps Europe safe. It's obvious that many of our surveillance activities are not aimed at terrorism, so let's not pretend that they are.
In addition, we should ask our spymasters and their political masters to consider the diplomatic and political damage of hyper-surveillance if, as happens more and more often, our secrets become public. Right now, it seems as if our national-security bureaucracy does anything and everything it can. While the potential gains of wiretapping a chancellor's personal phone may seem considerable, we know now that they can be dwarfed by the costs of exposure. Our political leaders must have the courage to ask: is the risk really worth it?
As the surveillance controversy has unfolded, Europe and America have been negotiating a much-needed trade pact. Now the negotiations may be in jeopardy, although a new round is scheduled to kick off next week. In Poland this week, Secretary Kerry asked the Europeans to separate their concerns about surveillance from the negotiations, but trust is not divisible by issue. You either have it, or you don't. After all, many Europeans are asking: Why negotiate, when all our strategies are apparently known?
It would be a terrible shame if distrust over mass U.S. surveillance derailed these talks. As economic and political power shift from west to east, America will need Europe as much as Europe needs us. So in the future, we should listen less to our allies' private conversations and more to their concerns.