James Holmes

US-German Relations: The View From Berlin

Revelations that the U.S. was spying on Angela Merkel could have long-lasting repercussions.

James R. Holmes

A quick note about the political climate in Western Europe as I enjoy a weekend of sightseeing in Berlin — a gray weekend, alas — before heading home. It was good to discover that I can still read German despite seldom doing so these days. It seems all those years spent conjugating verbs, etc., weren't in vain. But what I read about transatlantic relations in leading newspapers this week — and heard from talking with Germans at our conference and traipsing the streets amid ordinary folk — should give Washington pause.

To take one front-page story at random, a commentator for Die Welt proclaimed the death of the Obama administration's soft-power policy in the wake of allegations that U.S. intelligence services have been surreptitiously monitoring Chancellor Angela Merkel's communications. Soft power is a power of attraction deriving from culture, institutions, and policies. Many Germans were feeling repelled rather than attracted this week.

Think about what binds alliances together: common interests, chiefly, and social and cultural affinities. The Abhöraffäre, as the German press calls it — the bugging affair, roughly translated — strikes at perceptions of common interest between long-time allies. And remember that the North Atlantic community is an idea as much as anything. Ideas, and the affections to which they give rise, demand care and feeding to thrive.

Australians were having a good laugh at our expense when I was Down Under a few weeks ago, during the government shutdown. But that episode arose from political parties' accepting the Founding Fathers' invitation to struggle over important questions. Though messy (and painful for, ahem, some of us), the system was working, or not, as designed. The Abhöraffäre is a product of conscious U.S. policy, and thus is something different. One hopes U.S. officials will find a way to repair the damage to transatlantic relations, and soon.

James R. Holmes
Contributing Author

James R. Holmes

James R. Holmes is a defense analyst for The Diplomat and a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College where he specializes in U.S., Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and U.S. diplomatic and military history.

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