The immediate analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union address was in full action even before the speech ended on Tuesday evening. In some ways, it is an exercise in the orchestration of well-rehearsed lines with expected responses from both sides of the political aisle. In other ways, it is a call to political constituencies to mobilize around the president’s priorities over the coming year. Obama focused on a particularly sensitive issue: inequality in American society and what can and should be done about it. There remains a huge political gap in the perception of potential solutions. And 2014 is a critical Congressional election year in which the fate of the Senate majority is up for grabs—and with that, the fate of the rest of Obama’s presidency.
The president has already reached many milestones in his time in office. Even with the initial stumbling, health care was taken to a new level. Two wars have begun to wind down. Diplomacy was repeatedly stressed as a primary tool of foreign policy. A three and a half decade old estrangement with Iran may be turning a corner. And a close encounter with fiscal catastrophe was avoided even.
While foreign policy, as usual, was only a fraction of the long speech, Obama did not break any new ground. The points mentioned—drawdown in Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran, and nuclear disarmament, among others—were continuations of earlier speeches.
There was not much about the NSA surveillance controversy either, which was noticed again in Germany. Dissatisfaction with the president’s earlier speech on that subject two weeks ago was already widely shared in Berlin, as was the negative reaction to an interview on ZDF television in which Obama suggested that Chancellor Merkel need not worry about her cell phone being tapped—but nothing was said about the rest of Germany.
While trying to explain the NSA controversy, Obama and his administration have lost credibility in the German public. In her own speech to the Bundestag this week, the chancellor expressed her direct criticism of NSA surveillance, articulating what so many Germans believe to have done serious damage to trust in the Obama administration. She repeated what the president himself has also argued—that not everything that is technically possible needs to be done and that the ends do not justify the means.
That speech precedes what is expected in the coming months—a Bundestag investigation into the NSA affair. That should serve to keep this issue on the front burner of the media for a while, despite that fact that it is largely expected to produce little impact.
While the chancellor enjoys a strong position within her super-sized coalition with the Social Democrats, the president’s low popularity and the Republican House majority make him look weaker, despite the GOP’s lack of a unified strategy on what it actually stands for. A Republican majority in the Senate is possible—if not probable—after the November midterm elections. Should that happen, Obama’s presidency will have even less room to maneuver than now.
All of that is visible in Germany. But, preoccupation with the Snowden affair has tended to overshadow other points of the German-American dialogue, such as the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, and murderous scale of violence in Syria—just to name three. It has also muddied the discussion of the actual necessity of intelligence services. But more importantly, the nature of the debate also obscures the essential challenge we are facing—balancing the tools and ability to connect people with the responsibility to protect people. Some of that debate must focus on a primary source of the threats to privacy, which includes the individual decision to engage on the internet with our own information. The challenges to our privacy are, in many ways, of our own making when we expose ourselves so extensively to the borderless internet through social media.
The Snowden case has focused attention on the collection of data by government sources—not on Facebook or Instagram. And it had weighed so heavily on the German-American link because Germans did not understand how they had become part of the global scale of data gathering by probably the most sophisticated tool chest for that purpose in the United States government. That other countries like China, Russia, and even fellow members of the EU also train their virtual telescopes at Germany was not as dramatic as the revelations of the NSA dragnet. That comes through the lens of Germans, who saw the United States as their most important strategic partner on the globe and who saw Obama on the whole as the president who most embodied the German view of an ideal American president. That last image is now tarnished.
President Obama’s speech this week was aimed primarily at the U.S. domestic audiences, who vote. Although millions outside of the United States pay attention to an American president’s words, his emphasis was not so much on the issues of concern to those impacted abroad.
Merkel’s speech was equally domestic in its messages and its targets. Merkel chose to address the surveillance issue directly, giving it recognition for the German public’s disdain for it. In the same vein, she also indicated that her scheduled visit to the United States in the coming months would not alleviate all the discomfort Germans now feel.
Unless Germans grasp the intricacies of the U.S. debate over this complicated behemoth of an issue, they will not understand that the American arguments pro-privacy and against surveillance are as energetic, worried, and anxious as they are in the German environment.
The current mood in Germany reflects the feeling that the Americans do not really care about how this issue affects them and their privacy. But the fact is that the Americans are also preoccupied with themselves and their private sphere.
Both the challenges and choices we are making with regard to our privacy freedoms cannot be met within only national borders. We need to forge agreements across those borders and regions if we are to get a grip on a twenty-first century phenomenon, which we are still learning about.
National governments are formed to address national needs and interests, but it is increasingly impossible to meet both without engaging in transnational responses.
Because it commands the most powerful set of tools, the United States has has a proportional and, indeed, special responsibility to uphold the standards with which they should be applied, regulated, and overseen. Some in the U.S. might argue that those controls are in place already, but the perceptions are different elsewhere—including in Germany. The further argument is that these tools are in the service not only of the U.S., but also its allies.
However, that argument does not persuade Germans, who have neither oversight, nor influence on American policies
The president’s speech on Tuesday and Chancellor Merkel’s the next day illustrate the public gap across the Atlantic when it involves a matter of trust. There will need to be more efforts to harmonize both the perceptions and the processes through which we deal with the challenges of protecting and connecting ourselves with the same standards.
In the end, Germans and Americans deserve to have the same expectations on how that can be accomplished.