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Germany and the United States: Unprecedented breach

Washington is becoming an unreliable partner for Berlin and the rest of Europe

July 15, 2014 6:00AM ET

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it was publicly announced and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an unprecedented breach in the very close relations since 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It took only one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles: one an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany's Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the breach can be swiftly — if ever —repaired.

The op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, written by Jacob Heilbrun, is titled "The German-American Breakup." The word "breakup" is unequivocal, or almost. After an overview of various German commentaries, he ends with this admonition:

If [President Barack] Obama is unable to rein in spying of Germany, he may discover that he is helping to convert it from an ally into an adversary. For Obama to say auf Wiedersehen to a longtime ally would deliver a blow to American national security that no amount of secret information could possibly justify.

If Heilbrun seems to have little hope that his viewpoint will be heard in Washington, it pales before the lead article in Der Spiegel on the same date. That article is "Germany's Choice: Will It Be America or Russia?" One section comes under the header "The Last Straw." It cites not someone on the left or someone who has long advocated closer relations with Russia. It cites instead a conservative advocate of the free economy and of rock-solid relations with the United States who chairs an organization called Atlantic Bridge. In a tone of desperation, he says, "If [the latest spying allegations] turn out to be true, it's time for this to stop." Note that the article says it's time for it to stop, not that it's time for further discussions or negotiations about it. Just stop.

The United States keeps trying to restore what is unrestorable: U.S. leadership (read: hegemony) in the world system.

One last poignant detail: The U.S. ambassador to Germany speaks no German. Russia's ambassador is so fluent, one scarcely notices his accent. Entrance to the U.S. ambassador's office is protected by the highest-level security, surpassing that at the entrance to the White House's Oval Office. Entrance to the Russian embassy is so casual that it prompts disbelief.

Is this unprecedented breach so sudden and so unpredictable? By now, every major or minor paper in Germany, the United States, France, Britain and elsewhere is featuring the story, analyzing the causes and preaching solutions. Above all, most articles are searching for whom to blame. The principal suspects are the National Security Agency and Obama. But is it simply the unwise decisions of the NSA or Obama? In other words, could it have been different? Well, surely in detail. The U.S. government has been stupid and very clumsy. However, the problem is structural and is not due to the passing mistakes and stupidity of those in power in the United States.

The basic problem is that the United States is in geopolitical decline and has been for some time. It doesn't like this. It doesn't really accept this. It surely doesn't know how to handle it — that is, minimize the losses to the United States. So it keeps trying to restore what is unrestorable: U.S. leadership (read: hegemony) in the world system. This makes the United States a very dangerous actor. No small number of political agents in the United States are calling for some sort of decisive action (whatever that could mean). And U.S. elections may depend in large part on how U.S. political actors play this game.

That is what Europeans in general and now Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in particular are realizing. The United States has become a very unreliable partner. So even those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who are nostalgic for the warm embrace of the "free world" are reluctantly joining the less nostalgic others in deciding how they can survive geopolitically without the United States. And this is pushing them into the logical alternative, a European tent that includes Russia.

As the Germans and the Europeans in general move inexorably in this direction, they have their hesitations. If they can no longer trust the United States, can they really trust Russia? And more important, could they make a deal with the Russians that the Russians would find worthwhile and necessary to observe? You can bet that this is what is being discussed in the inner circles of the German government today and not how to repair the irreparable breach of trust with the United States.

Immanuel Wallerstein is a senior research scholar in the sociology department at Yale University and director emeritus of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University. He is also a resident researcher at La Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. His many books include “The Modern World-System and Historical Capitalism.” He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and Paris.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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