BERLIN – Germans used to joke that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s penchant for communicating via fleeting text messages effectively marked the end of traditional historiography. Well, at least American spy agencies seem to have kept full track of the behind-the-scenes communications – in Berlin and beyond.
Regrettably, US President Barack Obama and his administration have yet to comprehend the scale and severity of the damage caused to America’s credibility among its European allies. The problem is not that countries spy on each other (they all do). Rather, it is the extent of US intelligence gathering and America’s attitude toward allies that is most damaging.
Previous transatlantic clashes over diverse issues such as climate change, the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and the Iraq War exposed a breakdown of mutual understanding, sometimes stemming from sharp differences over how best to achieve certain common objectives. But the wiretapping crisis and other troubling revelations from the former American intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden point to a deeper problem: a crisis of mutual distrust that risks becoming a serious transatlantic rift at a time when closer political, economic, and security cooperation between Europe and the United States is needed more than ever.
There is probably nothing more destructive to friendly relations among democratic states than behavior by an ally that causes the other side to lose face at home. After all, it was Merkel who tried to calm the waters after the NSA scandal first hit Europe this summer. That is why the alleged US wiretapping of her cellphone is so damaging for her, both personally and politically.