NSA Eavesdropping Still Poisons U.S. Relations With Germany


Juergen Hardt’s position in the German government, coordinator of trans-Atlantic cooperation, once was considered a major honor – the official liaison to the United States, arguably Germany’s closest ally.

But since the revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped for years on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, U.S.-German relations have been a twisting, stomach-churning roller-coaster ride so wild that many Germans wonder whether it’s possible to get off. The pro-America crowd, meanwhile, can only warn that despite the nausea, it’s not safe to leave a ride in motion.

“We have gone through challenging times in the bilateral relationship in the past,” Hardt said in an interview. “As in every relationship, there have been ups and downs. Right now, we are going through challenging times when it comes to public perception.”

The relationship between Germany and the United States, two of the world’s four largest economies, is no small matter. The United States relies on Europe as a strategic and trading partner, and Germany is the tail that wags the European Union. As the world tilts toward Asia, economists and politicians think that perhaps the best way to extend the American Century and Europe’s global influence is through good relations, from shared security through open trade.

But the mere fact that Hardt is in this role today says something about the state of affairs. In the past, the job has been trusted primarily to political senior figures. But Hardt joined the Parliament only in 2009, and before his appointment as liaison to North America he wasn’t widely considered to be among Germany’s political elite. His previous career as spokesman for a family-owned vacuum cleaner sales company didn’t make national headlines, and he’d never been noted for taking the lead on trans-Atlantic issues.

The previous holders of the post were well-known: Hardt’s immediate successor was Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy star in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. It wasn’t long ago that former Hamburg Mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose, a onetime vice president of the Parliament, had held the position.

Since then, the job has lost much of its sheen. Hardt explains why.

“Our nations share historic and long-standing close relations. We share bonds of friendships and personal connections between our people,” he said. “This solid basis is often overshadowed these days for one simple reason: NSA surveillance. The problem is that this is to a certain degree a matter of two different cultures and experiences. What is being accepted in the United States is not acceptable here.”

Hardt notes that Germans are not naive about the ways of the modern spy world. There will be surveillance.

“We do not and we cannot expect a complete change of American security policy,” he said. “But we do expect our citizens to be treated with the same respect U.S. law grants to its citizens. And we do expect that our national laws will be honored.”

Germans were shocked by some areas of the U.S. spy program against his country, he said. And he reiterated a point made by Merkel: “In that regard, Germany needs some clear commitments.”

What, specifically? Nonspecific electronic spying? “No go.” Tapping the chancellor’s cellphone? “Absolutely no go.” Hiring spies in the German intelligence services? “No go.”

“Who are our friends in the world? Our closest allies are in Europe and the United States,” Hardt said. “Most Germans grew up knowing this. But now we have to make an extra effort to make this case. Nobody can explain something that is simply regarded as being illegal here. And the anti-American circles, which always existed here in small numbers, are seizing the opportunity to set a new agenda.”

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