The annual meeting of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) was an opportunity to look back on a half century of transatlantic relations, but it also was testimony that in one particular area, those relations are currently—and seriously—disturbed.
Americans and Europeans alike proclaimed that the alliance across the Atlantic is the most successful in history. The speech by Germany’s President Joachim Gauck (full text), as well as those by both Foreign Minister Steinmeier (full text) and Defense Minister von der Leyen (full text), echoed the same message. Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel were no less complimentary. The German keynote speeches all stressed the need for Germany to rethink its foreign policy priorities and to increase its level of global engagement. That was greeted positively by the American guests, among others. The transatlantic family gathering was happy.
But, despite this shared transatlantic enthusiasm, there was still a big elephant in the room, looming over the huge gathering in the Bayerische Hof and primarily concerned the Germans and Americans—the NSA surveillance issue and what to say and do about it.
The head of the MSC, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, grabbed the issue head-on by making the very first panel discussion about Cybersecurity. Following the president of Estonia’s global assessment of the digital revolution and the challenges ahead (full text), there was a sharp exchange between Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Mazière and U.S. Representative Michael Rogers concerning the reach of NSA surveillance. That clash ran through any number of private discussions over the length of the conference.
Many Germans, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum, found most Americans unwilling to accept their charge that the surveillance was “masslos”—excessive—and effectively illegal under German law. They pointed out that a special Parliamentary Committee will soon form to investigate NSA wiretapping of Chancellor Merkel’s personal mobile phone, and more broadly, U.S. surveillance operating on German soil. That will keep this issue on the front page in the German media for months to come.
American reactions were mixed, ranging from some expressions of sympathy for German outrage all the way to indignation in response Germans’ outrage. But neither Secretary Kerry nor Secretary Hagel even mentioned the NSA in their speeches. Representative Rogers aggressively defended the NSA and proclaimed that the threats around the globe to the United States and its allies necessitated surveillance. German counter-arguments that the NSA had no business tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phone were framed within a larger objection to U.S. intelligence services collecting data of millions of German citizens.
There seemed to be a classic case of people talking right past each other. Germans listened to American explanations of how careful and sensitive the Patriot Act-based surveillance policies have been with multiple levels of oversight. They also carefully listened to how the debate in the United States has heated up over concerns about violations of Americans’ privacy. And then they wonder why there is less concern about violations of Germans’ privacy.
The starting point for the American point of view is always 9/11. Now over a dozen years later, there are concerns in Congress that the reaction to that attack resulted in surveillance overreach, which has led to efforts to reset the Patriot Act’s parameters. The push back against those efforts is equally concerted. Yet, the focus of the U.S. debate is primarily about protecting the privacy of American citizens. Collecting and maintaining data elsewhere from around the globe is less integrated into that debate.
American reactions to German criticism is often accented by criticism of Germans, who—they argue—benefit from U.S. intelligence capabilities. This argument then goes a step further and alleges that Germans’ refusal to see the global threats confronting the United States and its allies in the digital arena ultimately undermines American policies that are designed to protect us all.
But that is where the transatlantic disconnect is most obvious.
There was widespread concern that restoring transatlantic trust will take a long time after this rift. Even though Secretary Kerry came close to admitting that the surveillance issue was burdening the transatlantic dialogue, the letters N, S, and A never appeared in his speech.
The next steps in this story will be difficult to anticipate. There will continue to be high-level visits to Washington in the next few months by ministers and indeed by the chancellor, who has accepted an invitation to visit President Obama. By that time, some progress needs to have been made to show that this rift is recuperating. There can be efforts to present new codes of conduct between the intelligence services. There can be high-profile exchanges between members of both governments to explore new ways of oversight and privacy protection.
But the fact is, there needs to be as much discussion about the relationships between security concerns and privacy rights across the Atlantic as there is within our respective societal debates. There is much at stake. There is a distinct danger that deep-seated distrust can undermine trade policies as well as business ties. The current negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could be infected by doubts about individual privacy as well as corporate security. Declarations from Washington, indeed by the president himself, that the United States is not engaged in industrial spying are not taken at full face value.
But the underlying basis for this feud is more complicated than such specific worries. Apart from the historical experiences involving both the legacy of the Nazi period as well as the forty years of East German police state surveillance, the German approach to both privacy and threats to privacy is not shaped by the cathartic events of a dramatic attack on German soil such as the United States experienced on 9/11. Whereas some Americans may look out on a globe full of dangers with a corresponding need to secure every possible tool to protect the country from another attack, some Germans see the threats to freedom from an overreaching state apparatus as an echo of an ugly past.
The fact is that Germans and Americans alike are having the same debate about the right balance of seeking both protection and connections in the global digital world. That requires using the tools we have created to pursue that balance and creating more and better ones together to guarantee a common set of safeguards. That requires a common commitment to sharing the tools as well.
One of the reasons why the Patriot Act was created after 9/11 was to help strengthen American intelligence services’ ability to overcome bureaucratic walls and talk with each other and share resources. That is also needed across the borders shared with allies and partners. To some extent that has been happening between German and American intelligence networks. But now there needs to be a rethinking of not only how that should happen, but also why. The public needs to grasp what its security may require to be sustained and protected. That discussion needs to happen in Germany and the United States. It would most effective if it could be a shared, transatlantic discussion to avoid a family feud.
In Munich, we were reminded that there is a lot of work ahead to accomplish just that.