As Germany basks in its World Cup victory, it’s easy to forget that one of the most telling geopolitical moments of the tournament came during the Germany-U.S. game. As American fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” the Germans countered with, “N-S-A! N-S-A! N-S-A!”
In the weeks since, relations have crumbled. After it learned that a German intelligence officer allegedly spied for the United States, Germany expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin — a rare move by a close American ally.
This isn’t a sudden reversal in relations. The fallout from surveillance scandals has been sharp and steady over the past year. In 2013, Germans grew wary about the extent of U.S. espionage after Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that the United States had been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone since 2002. A German parliamentary committee asked Snowden to provide testimony for an inquiry on foreign intelligence activities. The request, which Snowden rejected, was sure to rankle the United States, but Germany pushed forward anyway: One country’s traitor was another’s key witness.
It’s no surprise that of all foreign countries, President Barack Obama’s approval rating has fallen the most in Brazil and Germany, two countries with leaders monitored by the National Security Agency.
But all the “friendly spying” scandals are just one piece of the puzzle. There are even deeper fissures causing a lot of the bad blood — and suggesting more of it to come.
The Obama administration’s weaker second-term foreign-policy team and its reactive, ineffectual decision-making have made matters worse. While many U.S. alliances have suffered from this foreign policy decline, America’s relationship with Germany has taken the biggest hit.
Germany is also unnerved by the potential for economic conflict between the United States and a German-led Europe. The global reach of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency gives the United States an extraterritorial privilege. America’s sanctions regime, which extends far beyond its borders, further empowers the United States. Sanctions can apply when there are no American citizens involved. They can target non-American branches of foreign institutions that simply have a U.S. presence, such as French bank BNP Paribas, which recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion fine. With more than $15 billion in fines now levied against more than 20 international banks — mostly European — Germany is alarmed by the United States’ tendency to use its economic clout as an extension of its foreign policy, one that the Germans see as increasingly fickle, opaque and misaligned from their own.
In terms of their values and preferences — including human rights, liberal free markets and rule of law — Germany and America see eye to eye. But in an environment in which American foreign policy is eroding even as America’s reach extends deeper into the global economy and communication network, Germany is worried about how the United States will wield its power. That’s especially true when only 38 percent of Germans still consider America “a trustworthy partner,” according to a survey that predates the most recent intelligence scandal. In anticipation of its growing resentment and resistance to American overreach, Germany is already ramping up relations with other countries to hedge its bets.
China-Germany is one of the most important relationships to watch in a world of declining American foreign policy. Last week, Merkel traveled to Beijing — her seventh trip to China as chancellor — inking lucrative economic deals, and finding common ground with the Chinese over U.S. surveillance overreach. During the visit, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang commiserated: “China and Germany, it can be said, are both victims of hacking attacks.”
Both countries prioritize commerce over philosophical differences. China is the top foreign investment destination for German companies; in a recent survey, 90 percent of German enterprises in China expressed interest in expanding their business there. Meanwhile, China’s investment in Germany grew by 28.4 percent from 2010 to 2013.
A visit from Secretary of State John Kerry may keep tensions with Germany from boiling over for now, but it won’t get Washington out of hot water. Washington needs to understand how deep the tensions go, and treat a reset with Germany as a top priority at the head-of-state level. It needs to make Berlin feel like a true partner. Unfortunately, that strategy is looking unlikely.
PHOTOS: Germany’s national soccer players acknowledge their fans after their win over the U.S. at the end of their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in Recife June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman