Amid Spy Row, Germany Seeks a More Independent Foreign Policy

5 MINS READJul 15, 2014 | 09:50 GMT
Germany Seeks A More Independent Foreign Policy
(Adam Berry/Getty Images)
An American flag flies in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, on July 7.

On July 13, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met to calm tensions between the United States and Germany brought about by alleged U.S. espionage in Germany. The allegations spawned weeks of friction at a time when Germany had begun reshaping its foreign policy, seeking a balance between its military and political ties with the United States and its trade and energy ties with Russia.

Two and a half decades after reunification, Germany is starting to develop a more independent foreign policy, an idea that the country's leaders are finding has electoral merit. While a formal break between Germany and the United States cannot be expected, Berlin will choose how to challenge the White House selectively in the coming years.

On the surface, the recent tensions between Germany and the United States appear to be about the alleged cases of U.S. espionage in Germany; U.S.-German relations soured last year with the National Security Agency scandal, and several polls suggest that the incident damaged the United States' image in Germany. During the electoral campaign in late 2013, opposition parties criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mild reaction to the scandal and urged Berlin to pursue a more independent foreign policy, putting an end to what they perceived as an automatic alignment with the White House.

Recent revelations that the United States is still spying on German officials and institutions, a year after the National Security Agency scandal and the alleged hacking of Merkel's cellphone, have created profound discomfort in Berlin. Under pressure from the media, the opposition and members of the ruling coalition, the German government decided to act July 10 by suggesting that the representative of the U.S. intelligence services in the U.S. Embassy leave the country.

The decision was purely political. German authorities repeatedly said that the data released in the two cases reported in early July were not particularly sensitive. (One case involved a member of Germany's intelligence services who allegedly was selling information to the United States, and the other allegedly involved an employee at the Ministry of Defense). But the mere suggestion that the Americans were still spying on the Germans was enough to force Merkel's government to react.

However, these are only superficial issues. Underneath these scandals, a deeper process is taking place: Germany is seeking to develop a more independent foreign policy.

Germany on the North European Plain

Germany on the North European Plain

Berlin's Previous Positions

From a historical perspective, Germany's full alignment with the West is a relatively unusual event. Because of its geographical position at the heart of the North European Plain, Germany traditionally has designed its foreign policy with one eye on its large Western neighbor, France, and the other eye on Russia. Since the creation of the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire in the early 18th century, ties between Berlin and Moscow have alternated between cordiality and even alliance to friction and war. The Russians traditionally have been both attracted to and appalled by Germany's industrial and scientific might, while the Germans have often seen Russia as a counterweight to France, the United Kingdom and Austria, even as they have been threatened by Russia's expansionist desires in Central Europe.

World War II and the Cold War abruptly changed things. The United States emerged as a military, political and economic power in Europe, profoundly affecting geopolitical calculations across the Continent. With Germany occupied and divided, West Germany did not have much of a choice but to automatically align with the United States and Western Europe. The creation of the European Economic Community and Germany's accession to NATO was part of this trend. The German political establishment was often uncomfortable with this, and several attempts to reach out to the East were made in a series of initiatives commonly referred to as "Ostpolitik." However, West Germany's alliance with the United States remained its default foreign policy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, Berlin did not have much trouble balancing its relationships with the United States and Russia; there was not insurmountable antagonism between the White House and the Kremlin. More important, Russia was weak and mired in domestic problems. Germany's decision not to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to some tension between Berlin and the Washington, but at that time things were quiet in the European Union, and Russia was still recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union.

Germany's Evolution

Circumstances have changed significantly since then. Europe's economic crisis led to a political crisis, and the European Union was severely fragmented. Russia's actions, first in Georgia in 2008 and more recently in Crimea, showed the Europeans that while Russia may still be relatively weak, it is considerably more willing to act than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. At the same time, since reunification, Germany's political and business leaders have rediscovered the benefits of close ties with Moscow. These ties explain Berlin's reluctance to place severe sanctions on Russia after the events in Ukraine. It also explains why relations are cordial but tense between Berlin and Washington and why some countries in Central and Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly worried about Germany's actions and are demanding greater U.S. involvement in the region.

Germany is also experiencing a demographic transition. People who were born in the 1980s and 1990s do not have memories of Soviet occupation or U.S. generosity. They did not suffer under communism or benefit from the Marshall Plan. These people watch American films, wear American clothes and listen to American music but do not feel as emotionally attached to the United States as their parents do. For them, it is only natural that Germany should have a fully independent foreign policy. Japan, the other major power defeated in World War II, is going through a similar process.

Despite these changes, Germany will not break its alliance with the United States, nor will it leave NATO. Berlin still considers the White House a key political, economic and military ally. The decision to ask a U.S. official to leave Germany is a small, symbolic gesture that will not have profound repercussions. But it should be seen as an indicator of a larger trend: The days of automatic alignment are over.

During the past few years, Germany has slowly reshaped its foreign policy, including its relationship with Moscow, ensuring the protection of its economic interests in Russia despite lingering tensions between the two countries. The alignment is a reflection of Berlin's constraints and its strategic interests; Germany is economically tied to France and the eurozone at a time of deep economic stress on the Continent, and as such it cannot afford a break with Russia instigated by the United States. This has affected Berlin's relationship with the White House for a few years and will continue to do so.

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