FROM READERS: What “Merkelphone” means for U.S.-German relations

Monday, December 2, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Alexander Drößler is a German Fulbright Scholar studying journalism. This is his first semester at the Missouri School of Journalism as an exchange student. His submission was originally published on his personal blog

It feels strange today to live in the United States as a German. To live in a country which probably monitors all the electronic communication you do, even if it analyzes it or not. To live in a country where secret services are able to monitor all online or phone communication. A country that does not recoil to monitor the government leaders and presidents of other countries.

Okay, one could expect that from enemy countries. But not from friends. It is not safe that the U.S. secret services monitored or monitor the communication of the German government, including chancellor Angela Merkel and 34 other countries.

German media are upset in a way I have never seen before. Even conservative editors who mostly have a pro-American view point out the political explosive force of this topic. They ask: Are we an enemy of the U.S? Even the main German news TV-show “Tagesschau” doubts the friendship between Germany and the U.S. by calling them our “allegedly American friends."

After months Merkel starts acting

It all began when chancellor Angela Merkel called president Barack Obama and expressed her anger. Now, after the German election campaign is over, Merkel and her government stand there dumped, for they scotched the discussion about privacy policy a few weeks ago, pointing out that no German law is hurt by the U.S. Secret Service. Why? Because Angela Merkel had “no reason to distrust” the NSA and President Obama. Now she does.

When the scandal reached Merkel, she gave up her naive attitude about the American government's behavior. For the first time in history, the German government summoned the U.S. ambassador, which is a hard diplomatic decision, especially when the countries have a peaceful, friendly relationship like Germany and the U.S. Merkel worked closely with Obama and pointed out that he calls her when he wants to know her attitude. Their common goal is to prevent terrorist attacks and help the secret services of the countries working together to prevent them. This might be the official reason for spying on other countries — and one reason for Merkel's naive behavior during previous weeks. At least the German police could prevent a few terrorist attacks because of hints the U.S. Secret Service gave. But this cause doesn’t count anymore.

A worldwide war on data

As the German public broadcast documentation “World Wide War” points out, we are at war. An invisible cyber war with the goal to get as much data possible to make better economic and political decisions. It is much easier to negotiate when you know what your adversary wants and is able to do. For example, if the topic is an economic free-trade zone between the U.S. and Europe, you can support your local economy when you know the strengths, weaknesses and developments of foreign companies. It seems unrealistic that Obama does not know what the NSA and other services do. Instead it probably fits to his current strategy in foreign politics.

Maybe this is the way the U.S. deals with global economic changes during a time when countries like China, Brazil and India are on the rise and threaten the U.S. status as the only global super power. Maybe it is their way to defend their position. To be fair, it is not clear whether nearly every country spies on other countries for economical and political reasons.

Probably it is usual in today's digital world. Who knows where Germany spies and for which reasons? Nevertheless it is the American Secret Service, NSA, who is criticized, not Germany. The German public is upset about the spying, maybe because of the unbelievable fact that the U.S. monitors Germany. The idea that Germany could also spy on other countries is more unbelievable. Finally, we have to be thankful to Edward Snowden who leaked all this information. We needed the debate about privacy after all the technological developments of the last decade, which totally changed the way we communicate.

We need a stronger European Union

In the U.S., editors worry more about the fact that Merkel called Obama rather than the fact that their secret service monitors the communication of world leaders. Instead of asking more questions, they try to play down the German commotion. For historical reasons, Germans are more upset about monitoring and spying. Though they began to ask themselves what impact this newest development could have for the U.S. and its relationship to other countries who could start to see the U.S. more as an aggressor than as a friend. Other countries already do for historical reasons.

Certainly the E.U. has begun to pay more attention to privacy policy. Just a few days ago, the E.U. parliament voted to stop the swift agreement with the U.S., which allows the U.S. to monitor bank data of European citizens in the case of a terrorist suspect. Politicians said the U.S. seems to abuse its rights in this agreement. Another impact could be the planned free trade agreement. Former German chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrat Party claimed weeks ago that the E.U. should stop negotiations until the NSA issue is solved. What seemed overcautious now looks totally true.

The whole issue could have one positive impact from my European point of view: Maybe it helps Europe to speak and act more with one united voice. Only a strong European Union can compete with the U.S. and other growing markets and countries like China, Russia and India. In this rare case, all countries have the same opinion. However, the issue allows for mistrust between growing countries. It will take a while until the former trust is restored.

What we personally learn: Maybe it is better to send pigeons to communicate if we don’t want others to monitor.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you’ll consider sharing. Here’s how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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Ellis Smith December 2, 2013 | 8:56 a.m.


As sometimes happens, your stay here may result in your learning that certain situations in the United States are not quite what you imagined before you arrived.

We now have a paraniod federal government seemingly addicted to spying on its own citizens and friendly foreign countries. The lame excuse being given for the latter practice is that "everybody does it," which is the standard excuse given by governments or individuals when caught doing something wrong.


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