German-U.S. Relations Will Survive WikiLeaks — but the Trust Is Gone

  • Share
  • Read Later
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

German police officers guard the U.S. embassy in Berlin on Nov. 29, 2010

Just when it looked like U.S.-German relations were on the mend after the fallout over the Iraq war — when then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's vocal opposition to the U.S. invasion in 2003 put Germany on a collision course with the Bush Administration — the leaking of classified cables from U.S. embassies has threatened to cause a new diplomatic row. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel was given advanced access to hundreds of documents released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, and the magazine showed no mercy, splashing the story on its cover on Monday. The memos — emanating from a reported 1,719 documents from the U.S. embassy in Berlin — reveal that diplomats regarded German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a leader who approached international relations with the aim of reaping domestic political gain. In one cable sent from the embassy on March 24, 2009, Merkel is called "risk averse and rarely creative"; in another, dated early 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, reportedly describes Merkel as "insecure" in her dealings with the new U.S. government. And in other documents, the Chancellor is given the undiplomatic nickname of "Angela 'Teflon' Merkel" for her habit of steering clear of conflict.

"The leak is extremely awkward for the U.S. embassy in Berlin, and it's bound to sour personal relations between U.S. officials and German politicians," says Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "It's also damaging for the U.S. State Department, as from now on it will get fewer frank assessments from German officials and politicians."

Perhaps the harshest criticism is reserved for Merkel's Vice-Chancellor, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who in various memos is slammed as incompetent, vain and critical of the U.S. On Sept. 18, 2009, just days before German's federal election, the U.S. embassy sent a cable calling Westerwelle "opportunistic" and "arrogant and too fixated on maintaining his 'cult of personality' " and saying he had little experience in foreign policy. In a document dated Feb. 4, 2010, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is reported to have told U.S. Ambassador Murphy that Westerwelle was "the single biggest obstacle" to a request from the U.S. for more German troops in Afghanistan.

In fact, Guttenberg is virtually the only German minister to emerge from the revelations untainted. Described as a "close and well-known friend of the U.S.," the affable politician is praised for being a "foreign policy expert and transatlanticist." Meanwhile, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is unflatteringly noted as being "neurotic" and "an angry old man."

Der Spiegel called the publication of the confidential information a "disaster for U.S. diplomacy," while the mass-market daily Bild said the revelations were a "political earthquake." As Germany's political establishment braces itself for more embarrassing revelations, ministers have been forced onto the defensive. At a news conference on Monday, Westerwelle told reporters that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called him on Friday to express her "deep regret" about the imminent leak. And German government officials are desperately trying to reassure the Obama Administration that U.S.-German relations are still on track. On Monday, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert insisted to reporters that ties between the two countries were "firm" and "robust" and would not be harmed.

While many analysts say the leaked memos will not affect the main areas of cooperation between Berlin and Washington — over Iran or climate change, for example — the candid comments about German politicians have gone down like a lead balloon. "This will be damaging," said Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Merkel's CDU party, to public broadcaster ZDF on Monday, adding that Washington would have to reassure its allies that it can be trusted and that the Obama Administration must review its security measures. "The revelations are embarrassing — because they make classified cables public, and not because of their content," says Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. "A lot of the assessments of German policymakers seem accurate. I suspect they are widely shared in Berlin."

As the man whose name often appears on the leaked memos, U.S. Ambassador Murphy has had to do the rounds on TV to try to calm the media storm. "This is completely and utterly irresponsible," he fumed during an interview with ZDF on Monday, admitting there would be "bumps in the road and broken china" in the days ahead.

It's still too early to predict the long-term consequences of the latest WikiLeaks revelations, but one thing is clear: in the future, German politicians will probably think twice about confiding in U.S. officials. As former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told ZDF on Monday, "If that trust is broken, as is now the case, then of course you need to start back at zero." Hardly a tantalizing prospect for Germany's diplomatic corps.