By expelling the CIA station chief in Berlin recently, Germany hoped to jolt the United States into paying attention. Germans are outraged by reports that American spies may have been working inside their security services. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that hostile operations like this “contradict everything that I understand to be a trusting cooperation between friendly partners.”
Historical memory of the Nazi and communist police states makes Germans especially sensitive to government surveillance. Besides, Germany's security services cooperate intimately with the CIA, so spying on Germany should be unnecessary. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, the grand old man of German politics, had it right when he called these operations "so dumb that you can only weep at the stupidity of it all."
Taking this episode as simply a misunderstanding over privacy issues, however, would be to miss its larger importance: It also suggests that the United States is having trouble adjusting to a new age of more equal global partnerships.
Especially during the Cold War, the United States had the power to intimidate countries that we euphemistically called "partners" or "allies." Sometimes we forced them to take steps that were against their own interests. Our relative power in the world has declined, but many Americans still find it jarring to make political and diplomatic compromises to accommodate our friends. We expect other countries to accept our worldview and defer to our agenda, not the other way around. This leaves us unable to adapt to the changing nature of alliances.
Troubling breaches have opened between the United States and the most important country in Europe, the most important country in Latin America, and the most important country in South Asia. All three — Germany, Brazil, and India — still want to remain friends with the United States, but only if the US changes its behavior.
Many Germans have been alienated by aggressive American policies in the Middle East and beyond. The recent surveillance scandal further strains the German-American alliance, which grew as a response to specific conditions — World War II and the Cold War — that have receded into history. Germany feels a natural pull back to its traditional Central European identity. To keep Germany as a close partner, we must take its concerns seriously. There is no sign we are prepared to do that.
Brazil, another valuable partner, is also unhappy with American behavior. Brazilian leaders strongly oppose key US policies in Latin America, including our embargo on Cuba, our tolerance of the 2009 military coup in Honduras, and our relentless campaign against the leftist regime in Venezuela. They would like us to take their views into account when shaping policies for their region. Many in Washington find such expectations ludicrous.
After it was revealed last year that the United States was spying on President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and members of her government, she expressed her "personal indignation and that of my country" and indefinitely postponed a state visit to Washington. American presidents have occasionally canceled trips to make a point, but rarely if ever have we been on the receiving end of such a snub.
Our relations with India are also troubled. We held India at arm's length during the Cold War because it sought to maintain good ties with Moscow. More recently, we have pressured it to end its friendship with Iran, which extends back thousands of years. Indians are deeply unhappy at the way the United States has rampaged across nearby Afghanistan for the last decade. Recently they have learned that their leaders, like those of Germany and Brazil, have been targets of US surveillance.
President Obama once said the US and India could form "a defining partnership of the 21st century." That is only possible if we accept a partnership we do not dominate.
Americans will be far more able to project power and influence if we do so along with partners like Germany, Brazil, and India. But political partnerships, like friendships and marriages, do not work when one partner expects the other to obey. Our success in the emerging new world depends on recognizing that we can no longer take our friends for granted. We should be guided by an old Sam Cooke lyric: "This is a mean old world to try and live in all by yourself."
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.