The erosion of the transatlantic trust

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Until now the Iraq War defined the nadir in trans-Atlantic relations. But that disagreement concerned military intervention. This time, the NSA scandal touches the fundamental issue of trust and that means the consequences of a rupture are more severe, writes Annette Hauser.

Annette Heuser is the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Bertelsmann Foundation.

Allegations of the NSA's tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone have yet to be proved, but the agency's spying is already causing unprecedented damage to the trans-Atlantic relationship. The controversy has festered for five months, but it reached a new peak with yesterday's call from the chancellor to President Barack Obama. Her message to the president, who is increasingly besieged by his closest allies: Spying on her or her government is unacceptable.

Three things are remarkable about this recent development. 

First, the chancellor is known to be a cautious political leader. She takes time to determine her course of action and then still proceeds carefully. But her quick and personal involvement in placing a call to her friend, Barack, would not have occurred if the German intelligence service had not provided her with robust information about US hacking.  

Second, President Obama's reportedly cool response to the chancellor reconfirms the skepticism of European leaders and the broader European public about the commander-in-chief's commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship. Mr Obama is increasingly perceived as a leader who does not see the need to nurture ties with his closest allies or even establish close political ties to his counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. The president is the first in the post-war era who does not appear to be a trans-Atlanticist at heart.

Third, the Obama administration continues to underestimate the short- and long-term effects of the NSA scandal on the trans-Atlantic relationship. Europe is now united in its repugnance of American spying practices, and this abhorrence goes beyond any personal targeting of the German chancellor or her government. Europeans feel that Washington has disregarded and disrespected their privacy, which they, in general, safeguard more than Americans do.

The latest allegations mean the US has likely crossed a line. A European response is now coming, and it will be a collective one. Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) may be put on hold. There have already been calls among high-ranking European officials to do so.

A recent Bertelsmann Foundation study estimated a TTIP could create 740,000 new American jobs. Putting such a deal in jeopardy means the potential loss of a significant economic boon and the only prestigious project in which the US and Europe are currently engaged. 

The NSA scandal and its (mis)management by the White House are causing a political tsunami in Europe. Until now it was the Iraq War that defined the recent nadir in trans-Atlantic relations. But that disagreement concerned military intervention. This time the fundamental issue of trust is at hand, and that means the consequences of a rupture are more severe. Americans and Europeans have been profoundly successful over the past seven decades establishing the close ties that, at least until recently, have bound them together. Nothing short of a profound and tragic break in that fragile tradition could now be unfolding.