What is the Impact of the Alleged Intelligence Disclosures on the Future of the Transatlantic Relationship?

Hanns Seidel Stiftung
Munich, November 19, 2014
Ambassador John B. Emerson


Thank you, ProfessorMännle, Professor Meier-Walser.  When I arrived in Germany 15 months ago, I said that re-building trust would be one of my chief priorities.  I believe progress has been made and I welcome this discussion with Ambassador Ischinger, Dr. Janes, MdB Mayer, and Professor Stürmer about what this means for our partnership.

The discussion today is about how to rebuild trust, and the question posed is: how will the intelligence disclosures impact the future of the transatlantic relationship?

Rebuilding trust takes time, communication, understanding, and some changes in behavior.  It takes being reminded of why trust was established in the first place, in part through working together on current challenges.

And so the answer to the question is this: viewed from the perspective of the past, the progress we have made in recent months, and the challenges of today and tomorrow that we are addressing together, despite the difficulties of the past year, our relationship is maturing and strengthening.

I know this may be counterintuitive, so let me explain.

Viewed from the perspective of the breadth and depth of the transatlantic partnership today, it is easy to forget how difficult its beginnings were.  After a bitter war, we built a new relationship on the foundation of a common and enduring cause and on the foundation of shared values: freedom, human rights, and rule of law.  Over the decades, transatlantic partners have invested heavily in this relationship; and appropriately so.

The track record of German-American cooperation has been exceptional – starting from the early days after the end of World War II, through our solidarity in protecting the people of West Berlin, with the Luftbrücke, through the Cold War, through reunification, to today.  These events and others in our shared history had an impact that was felt around the world.

The events of the past several decades, however, have also shown that a vibrant trans-atlantic relationship is not a given.   Our relationship has endured tensions – over Vietnam, Pershing missiles, the Iraq war, and more recently, the NSA.

But because of our shared interests, which arise from our shared values, and because of our 70 year partnership and friendship, marked by strong economic and ancestral ties, we have always managed to overcome past tensions.

I said rebuilding trust first takes communication, understanding, and changes in behavior.  And so, with respect to the tensions that have arisen regarding the NSA disclosures, we have listened carefully to the concerns here in Germany; and we are responding to these concerns as part of an ongoing discussion that is being held at the highest levels of our governments.  Both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel agree – and insist – that when it comes to intelligence gathering, we should not be doing something just because we can, but because we need to – in order to protect our citizens and those of our friends and allies.  And they have put in place, through their respective chiefs of staff, a structured dialogue to make sure we honor that principle.

At the same time, in the United States, we are engaged in a robust debate about those same issues.  President Obama conducted an unprecedented, comprehensive review of our intelligence services.  Similar reviews have been made at the congressional level.  Reforms have been implemented.  Legislation has been proposed; and, as is the tradition in the U.S. – in stark contrast, may I add, to some other nations that are in the news these days –this process of review and reform is public, collaborative, and transparent.  This is the way our democracy works.  Or as Carl Schurz, a famous German-American once said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

But as we debate and reform, let us not forget: we live in a world where non-state actors, such as the “foreign fighters” who are returning to Europe from Syria, and now Iraq, seek to harm us – not only through traditional and barbaric tools of terror, but also, on a nearly daily basis, through cyber-attacks on our financial, air traffic control, or energy grid systems; and as you may have read this week, even on our State Department Internet system.

The ongoing discussion in both Germany and the U.S. about how to strike the right balance between Freiheit und Sicherheit has even more resonance in an era where non-state actors and metastasized terrorist groups use these tools of terror to promote their hateful ideology.  These folks have become very adept at using technology to recruit, train, plan, and carry out their attacks – and it is essential that we continue our work together not only to stay one step ahead of them, but also to enable us to continue to degrade the terrorist organizations with which they are affiliated.  Our successes in protecting citizens in both of our countries usually go unreported; and yet, failure would be catastrophic.

This reality demands that – even as we reform – we keep in mind the important work of our intelligence services; and why it is crucial that strong partners, such as Germany and the United States, work together effectively, proactively, and collaboratively.

I also said that trust is rebuilt by working together on new challenges.  During the course of the past year we have been confronted with challenges that may not pose the same existential threats that we experienced during the world wars of the last century or during the cold war, but are nonetheless significant.  Consider: the Russian aggression towards Ukraine, undermining the rule of law and territorial integrity that has been emblematic of post-Cold War Europe; the emergence of a terrorist threat in the Middle East, that exports hateful extremism and threatens to destabilize an entire region; the alarming spread of the Ebola virus, and the breakdown of the west African public health systems; the challenge of harnessing the impact of globalization, through creating the largest free trade zone in the world; and the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.  All of these issues demand collaboration – on all levels.  And from where I sit, the German-American relationship is front and center in everything that we do.

But, at the end of the day, trust will not be rebuilt without carefully thinking through deeper questions about the challenges we face and the values we share.  And so, in the wake of the NSA disclosures, yes, we need to have discussions such as this one here today about re-building trust.   But we also need to have thoughtful conversations about deeper questions such as:  what is the meaning of privacy in the digital age?  How do societies that share the same values, but have suffered through different experiences – the Nazis, the Stasi; 9-11 – work through the differences in approach those experiences might suggest?  How do we address the fundamental problem of young people, mostly men, who are so disillusioned that they become angry, and receptive to radicalization by extremists?

And there is another issue we have to deal with.  Germans who came of age after the fall of the wall do not share the visceral connection with the U.S. of those who grew up during the days of the Cold War and Reunification.  Many of these young people not only question the value of the German-American relationship; but they question whether we even share the same values.

Now, in the course of traveling through Germany, my sense is that the hopes, aspirations and concerns of young Germans are not so different from those of young Americans.  They share a distrust of big government, and big business; they share a passion for the same sports, music, art and film – the content they not only consume, but help to create.  They are worried about jobs, getting a quality education, the environment, and whether government is effectively exercising its role and responsibility regarding these issues.

And they also have concerns about what they saw on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, this summer; or what they saw on the streets of Düsseldorf and Berlin, when protests against the crisis in Gaza devolved into ugly anti-Semitic taunts.]

So the basis for deeper understanding and trust between younger Germans and Americans is there.

Yet, it is clear to me that we also need to address the question of shared values, head on.  Recent polls showing an undercurrent of anti-Americanism, and a sense of many that America is no different from Russia, are distressing.

The United States of America, constantly striving to create “a more perfect union” was founded on a commitment to freedom and democratic values; the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding.  The belief in free assembly, a free press, the right to criticize one’s own government, freedom of speech and freedom after speech, rule of law, the right to self-determination, and the need for free and fair elections.  Those ideals were written into the founding documents that govern America to this day.  And nearly two centuries later, those values were written into Germany’s founding documents.

Yet, we sometimes take these realities for granted.  That applies, by the way, to people of all generations.  The first amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees freedom of speech, of religion, and of the press.  How often do we forget how those  “freedoms of” translate into the “freedom to”: to live your life, to speak your mind, to start your own political party, to build your own business, to vote for any candidate, to pursue happiness, and to be yourself, whatever your gender or your sexual, religious or political orientation?

These values are not shared by many governments that are in the news these days.  And over the past year, they have been tested – in places like the Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq.  In all of these places, the United States and Germany and other transatlantic partners are working together, in support of democracy, free expression, human rights, and rule of law.

One thing is clear.  Whether it is the security of Ukraine, peace in the Middle East, the energy stability of Europe, creating a framework that will sustain economic growth well into this century through T-TIP, our collective response to climate change, or combating the threat of disease like the deadly Ebola virus, no one nation can make a real difference by acting alone.  That is why our partnership and our friendship are so important; and that is why it will persist and continue to strengthen.

In closing, I believe – despite the NSA revelations – that we are now going through a complete re-examination of who we are and what we mean to one another, as friends and allies, in the 21st century.  Germany itself is undertaking an important debate about its role in the world.  This is significant, and perhaps long overdue.

In the end, whether we are able to live up to our ideals comes down to us – and the choices we make in confronting these challenges together; and ultimately that will be the strength of our transatlantic partnership.

Vielen Dank.