For an intelligence agency, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is remarkably unintelligent. It’s rather like a new husband, who starts hacking his wife’s cellphone on their wedding day, with no inkling that this suspicion itself poisons their relationship.

By flaunting this counterproductive distrust as it spied promiscuously on the presidents and prime ministers of America’s closest allies, the NSA now risks undermining the trust Washington patiently built with those allies over decades. It clearly values pointless information obtained in the hermetic, clandestine world of omnivorous technology more than it does knowledge obtained from good-faith conversations between human beings free of coercion. It forgets that soft power arises from making others really want what we want—not from treating them as vassals.

In retrospect, it was foolish to tap the European Union headquarters, as one of the earliest of Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed. The EU is so gabby anyway, as many European commentators have noted, that there was nothing

further to learn by eavesdropping, except perhaps the name of Commission President Jose Barroso’s favorite take-out pizza parlor. To be sure, NSA spinmeisters could argue that no harm was done. European bureaucrats probably stood a bit taller after having their importance certified by the NSA assumption that they were worth listening to.

It was even more foolish to hack into 70 million French phone conversations in one month a year ago. Again, this targeting choice did no lasting harm and gave President Francois Hollande something to fume about, which might divert voters’ attention from a sagging economy and his record low 24 percent popularity. And cynical European comments earlier this week tended to regard the American action as having been richly earned by France’s own government services, given their reputation for snooping on allies’ commercial secrets.

Most foolish of all was the American surveillance on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and—we now know—even German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rousseff postponed a state visit to the United States when the NSA eavesdropping became known. The current Mexican government is moving toward curtailing security cooperation with the United States on drug-running, and Calderón, who worked closely with the United States on drugs during his time in office, now stands as a warning that foreign friends of Washington earn no special treatment.

For her part, Merkel—America’s most important European ally as leader of the continent’s economic powerhouse and banker—reacted with uncharacteristic sharpness at the reported tapping into her cell phones, which she famously uses as her operations centers. She phoned the White House immediately to say so and told Obama that she “unequivocally condemned” such a “grave breach of trust” as “fully unacceptable” among allies and demanded that “any such practices should be stopped immediately.” Merkel’s spokesman said the chancellor now expects the United States to “finally answer the questions that the German government asked months ago” about its eavesdropping operations in Germany. Other government officials added that they also expect Washington to fulfill its earlier promise and reach a “no spy” agreement with behavioral guidelines.

The European Parliament, too, has chimed in by demanding an end to Europe’s participation in the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) arrangement for global financial transfers because of the NSA’s access to the data. The European Parliament is further resisting the transatlantic trade deal that the United States and European Union are now trying to negotiate to give their economies a needed boost.

The depth of Berlin’s fury today is explained in part by Germans’ special sensitivity on privacy issues, due to its intimidating past of Gestapo and Stasi spying. It is explained even more by the betrayal Germans feel after decades of affection for their post-World War II mentor and protector. In its first forty years, Germany—in the form of West Germany—traded loyalty to U.S. leadership within NATO for protection against intimidation by the twenty Soviet divisions surrounding Berlin. This partnership culminated in the end of the East-West Cold War in 1989, the withdrawal of Soviet forces 1,000 miles to the east in the mid-1990s, and the luxury of a united Germany surrounded by friendly states thereafter.

Germans’ appreciation for the United States in the postwar years far transcended a transactional pact. America’s faith in humans’ capacity to make a new start went well beyond lingering French and British suspicions of post-Hitler Germans and even helped these new Germans to trust themselves in ways they hardly thought possible. The new Germans atoned for the sins of their elders in deep reconciliation with Israel, with other members of the European Community, and with Poland. When the Berlin Wall fell and East Germans clamored to join the free, democratic West Germany, it was Washington that overrode British and French resistance to German unification.

This wellspring of German affection for America survived even the 1968 generation’s aversion to the American war in Vietnam and the 1989 generation’s to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was manifested most recently in the restraint Chancellor Merkel displayed last summer when Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s vacuuming up of worldwide telecommunications first came into the public eye. She downplayed the issue, and the blogosphere today is full of taunts that the chancellor ignored the rights of ordinary German citizens and protested only against violation of her own privacy.

We are allies, but such an alliance can only be built on trust,” Merkel told reporters as she arrived at the trimonthly EU summit in Brussels this weekend. European Council President Hermann von Rompuy echoed her in inviting other EU members to join Germany and France in seeking a trust-based “understanding” with the United States by the end of 2013 concerning intelligence gathering.

The question now is how many years it will take Washington to restore the German-American and European-American trust that the NSA has so foolishly squandered.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification and Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance. This essay also appeared in the World Policy Journal and Internationale Politik on October 25, 2013.

© Elizabeth Pond

  • Rob Houck

    I have struggled to develop a thoughtful intelligence policy and do not have one. I agree with Ms. Pond’s point that trust is essential to cooperation and cooperation is essential to solving many of the problems we face. However, some of what we are seeing is posturing; necessary posturing but posturing just the same. Separately Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg noted that loss of face is particularly problematic on a national level. I suspect Ms. Merkel knew (or should have known) that some of this was going on. We know Konrad Adenauer complained about the clicking on his phone. Last week a German history professor gave an interview in Die Zeit noting that the victors in WWII got treaty rights that they have not given up. Ms. Merkel surely remembers that we took Stasi files in the confusion of late 1989 and did not give them back for years, and then perhaps not everything. Ms. Pond talks of trust built up over decades. (I still have the brochure showing Schroeder and Bush 2 walking close together, post 9-11.) I would have said that trust had gone with phantom WMD’s, the Iraq war and our blaming German intelligence for bad information on Curveball. Donald Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer did not exactly show trust at the security conference. Years ago even I was aware of our listening to telephone conversations between Chancellor Schroeder and Ambassador Ischinger. As to “soft power”, while I believe in it, a great many Americans — mainly in the Republican party – do not. I would be more convinced of Germany’s interest in soft power if it had any hard power. As to Ms. Merkel’s sharp tone with President Obama, I agree that this is new in public. In their phone calls – according to friends who had read transcripts – it is not. This is not to say her attitude is not justified – in public or in private. As to trade, Germans simply cannot threaten Americans with the trade deal. It takes 2/3rds of the Senate to approve any treaty. I think the likelihood that Republicans will give President Obama this achievement is very low. Most Americans, including some leading Democrats, stil think NAFTA was a bad idea. The Tea Party is against more power in Washington; power in Brussels is even worse. Finally, Ms. Pond has not been exposed to cable news as practiced in the US. Any violent act committed against the US during a Democrat’s presidency is constanct fodder for the right wing. We lost 4 people in Benghazi and blame finding never ends. If we let some phone call slip through the cracks that could have been intercepted but wasn’t due to soft power,…. Well, you get the idea. So I hope Ms. Pond and other experts come back with more concrete proposals. If the Europeans really want to keep their secrets, isn’t this ttechnically possible? If we can intercept these calls, isn’t it likely that the Chinese can or soon will be able to?