Germany is disheartened by America, its one-time mentor, protector and role model

Germany is disheartened by America, its one-time mentor, protector and role model

Nov 9th 2013 |From the print edition


EDWARD SNOWDEN makes a perfect hero for some Germans. As a former contractor of an American spy agency who has been divulging its excesses, he is a “good American” who makes some of his compatriots look like “ugly Americans”. He thus taps into both of the archetypes that Germans have long held about their most important ally. Mr Snowden also placed his own sense of morality above that of his government at the risk of being deemed a traitor. To Germans, who remember two dictatorships in one long lifetime, that is heroism.So it is not surprising that many Germans are now pleading with Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to grant Mr Snowden asylum. (His exile in Russia will expire next year.) On October 31st Mr Snowden met Hans-Christian Ströbele, a German politician from the Green party’s “fundamentalist” faction, at an undisclosed location in Moscow and hinted that he would testify in Germany about American snooping against Germans if Germany promised not to extradite him to America.

Most on Germany’s left and some on the right can’t wait to welcome him. Die Linke, a far-left party, wants a vote of parliament to force Mrs Merkel to give Mr Snowden immunity as a witness. Der Spiegel, a magazine, lists 51 German celebrities chiming in, with several even suggesting him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Legally, say scholars, Germany could refuse America’s demand for extradition if it declared Mr Snowden’s acts “political”. But everybody knows that this would be an unprecedented affront in the relationship with America. Its post-war nadir so far was the refusal by Gerhard Schröder, Mrs Merkel’s predecessor, to support America’s war in Iraq. Granting safe haven to Mr Snowden would mark another step down.

This is why the one woman who has the most right to be offended by American snooping seems hesitant to go that far. Mrs Merkel recently learned that the Americans tapped her mobile phone from 2002 until this summer. On October 23rd she spoke on the phone to Barack Obama, America’s president, in a tone that for a woman of her self-control passes for anger. But her spokesman has since said that “the transatlantic alliance remains of utmost importance to us Germans.”

That alliance (many Germans no longer call it a friendship) was always complicated. Germans have yearned for America since they migrated there en masse in the 19th century. Those who stayed behind dreamed of it—as did Karl May, an author who romanticised the Wild West more than a century ago. Germans still remember the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, when American “raisin bombers” fed and saved West Berlin. This summer they enthusiastically commemorated the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin. They continue to admire George Bush senior for his effort to make German unification succeed in 1990.

The desirable America stood for blue jeans, chewing gum and Elvis in German eyes, but also for democracy, freedom and rule of law—and the Germans were America’s most eager pupils. American soldiers and bombs (the nuclear B-61s are still stationed in Germany and may be updated soon) also meant protection against communism and other evils. Only under this aegis were Germans able to build their new post-war identity as pacifist Gutmenschen (good humans), says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany.

But Germans, especially on the left, always had a concomitant image of the ugly American. That America sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam, water-boarded prisoners in the war on terror and now executes human beings by drone strike. It practises mass-incarceration at home and the unlawful sort in Guantánamo Bay. Its capitalism is ruthless, its demeanour toward allies arrogant. When ugly America eavesdrops from its embassy roof next to the Brandenburg Gate, it tells Germans that, 23 years after they formally regained their sovereignty, America remains an occupying force. When it then harangues its ally, as it just did in a badly timed report that blamed Germany’s current-account surpluses for the economic ills of Europe, Germans feel fed up.

Mrs Merkel embodies the clash of these sentiments. Raised in communist East Germany, she loathed the spying of that regime on its own people and yearned for a freedom that she associated with America. She still raves with unusual passion about a long-ago trip to San Diego. At least since 2011, when Mr Obama presented her with America’s highest honour, the presidential medal of freedom, she thought the respect was somewhat mutual.

Let down by a friend

Now Mrs Merkel feels betrayed, as many ordinary Germans do since hearing of America’s indiscriminate grabs of their electronic communications. The emotion that runs through this public debate means that Mrs Merkel can no longer simply drop the subject. The German delegations commuting between Berlin and Washington must produce hard agreements of how Germany and America are to treat each other in future.

And beyond that? Mrs Merkel, like most Germans, understands that her rage is largely impotent. If she “punished” America by suspending talks about a transatlantic free-trade area, she would punish Europe and Germany at least as much in lost jobs and prosperity. If she questioned America’s military aegis, she would expose German unwillingness to lead militarily or diplomatically. Worst of all, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who is Mr Snowden’s host, would celebrate as he moved a step closer to his goal of driving a wedge between Western powers.

Mrs Merkel will therefore do neither, and Germans will understand. They may hear Mr Snowden’s testimony—from Russia. They will be deeply hurt by what he says. They will protest. Then they will continue to love-hate America as they always have


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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