American Misconceptions About Germany

By Elizabeth Pond

I beg to differ. Germany is not dysfunctional. And there was no sensible reason to spy on Angela Merkel, America's most important ally in Europe.

True, a Washington Post editorial last week in the wake of the shutdown of the United States government  did not apply the dirty word "dysfunctional" to today's Berlin. But it did worry that in the near future Germany "could swerve toward U.S.-style dysfunction." Why? Because a month after the general election, no new government is yet in place, and the coalition negotiations between Merkel's conservative party and the nation's second-largest party, the Social Democrats, are moving "at a glacial pace" and might not finish until year-end.

Now that fact isn't wrong. It is, however, irrelevant. Continuity is ensured by the German constitution and rules of the road that keep the old government firmly in office until the new one is selected. Coalition talks always take two to three months, six hours a day, as any frustrated journalist who tries to interview a party negotiator for comment longer than a sound bite during this period can attest. And cross-party cooperation is already far more functional in the collegial German Bundestag than in the warring U.S. Congress.

Moreover, the old chancellor will be the new chancellor, with her formidable dominance of German politics over the past eight years only enhanced by an electoral victory that brought her party within five seats of an absolute parliamentary majority. Any Washingtonian who really thinks that Berlin is in "political limbo" and "treading water" need only look at what Merkel has accomplished in the past week to be disabused of the notion that the German chancellor is putting "major decisions…on hold."

Already, Chancellor Merkel has confirmed her policy of flexible austerity in the Eurozone crisis. She has begun to lay out her views of what the new European Union architecture of economic governance should look like. And within the space of four days she just put reform of US intelligence agencies back onto the US domestic agenda for the first time since the 1970s. 

As for the justifications that various American commenters have advanced for the NSA spying on a close allied leader, these seem as inappropriate as the equation of maddening German thoroughness with American political gridlock.

Congressman Peter King, former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, for example, defended US surveillance of Merkel on the grounds that the "NSA has provided so much intelligence to the Germans and the French and other European countries to save them from terrorist attacks" that they should be grateful and not carp. To press his point, he asserted on CNN that the "NSA has done more to save German lives than the German army has done since World War II."

A Reuters columnist went further. He contended that "ardent Russophile" Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and noted that East German spy Günter Guillaume brought down West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1974. For good measure, the pundit added, "Germany has yet to expunge its Nazi past."

The Wall Street Journal accepted that "nobody doubts Mrs. Merkel's personal bona fides as a friend of the U.S." Yet there were "good reasons” for Washington “to eavesdrop on German chancellors,” the newspaper found. “Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder formed a de facto alliance with France's Jacques Chirac and Russia's Vladimir Putin to oppose the U.S. over [the] Iraq [invasion of 2003]. After leaving office in 2005 Mr. Schröder effectively went to work for Mr. Putin” as chairman of Gazprom's majority-owned Nord Stream pipeline consortium.

Perhaps the only thing missing from these indictments of Germany was a resurrection of American fears in the years just before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A common theme of commentary then was that Germany might again strike a covert anti-West deal with Moscow like the 1922 Rapallo pact that let the Weimar Republic break out of the arms restrictions of the Versailles Treaty.

Without delving too deeply into the quagmire of German history, suffice it to say briefly that the Germans have a stellar record of atoning for the sins of their fathers.  Angela Merkel's fluency in Russian as a student in East Germany did not make her an "ardent Russophile." After the wall fell, she entered the politics of united Germany as the protégé of Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom no German conservative would ever suspect of being a Russian stooge. She became a parliamentarian in the Christian Democratic opposition to Social Democratic Chancellor Schröder, not in support of him. Finally, her party led the cooling of Russian-German relations in recent years as Germans gave up the hope that former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev could modernize Russia and lead it away from its authoritarian past. There is no basis for suspecting Chancellor Merkel here.

QED. In today's hottest issue, it might even be argued that Germany's passion for safeguarding citizens' privacy is a necessary prod to get the democratic balance right between security and freedom. And it's beyond any shadow of a doubt that German politics is far less dysfunctional than American politics.



Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification and Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.

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