The National Security Agency affair was regarded as a scandal, but there has been no dramatic fall in confidence toward the United States. The crises in Ukraine and the Middle East strengthen the role of our alliance.
One particularly interesting confirmation of public opinion for social scientists is “cross pressure,” which was established in the 1940s by the Austrian-American pioneer of survey research, Paul Lazarsfeld. “Cross pressure” means that voters feel themselves pulled in opposite directions by, and torn between, their convictions on the one hand and their loyalties on the other. In Lazarsfeld’s days, this referred to Republican supporters who also had a good opinion of the Democratic President Roosevelt. As Lazarsfeld demonstrated, it takes such people an especially long time to bring themselves to make a decision. The burning question then is always which of the conflicting convictions will prevail.
In the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, there have been many situations when the political climate was marked by “cross pressure.” For example, in the Bundestag election of 2005, the majority of Germans were in favor of voting out the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Greens, but they still wanted to keep Gerhard Schröder as chancellor.* The situation was the same at the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s. At that time, the common view among Christian Democratic Union supporters was that Helmut Schmidt was actually a good chancellor, but unfortunately a member of the wrong party.
Estrangement and Rapprochement
The current German attitude toward the United States of America can also be described by the term “cross pressure.” In some areas, one can see estrangement, in others, a light rapprochement. All in all, the creeping tendency toward anti-Americanism, which must have been established in January 2013, has not increased.
At the moment, the population appears to be clearly upset by the National Security Agency’s bugging scandal. To the question of whether the surveillance of German telephone and Internet activity by the American intelligence service was regarded as a major scandal, 66 percent of Germans today answer “yes.” If one modifies the question somewhat, and expressly asks about the NSA’s bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone, the response doesn't change much: Sixty-one percent see it as a major scandal.
Therefore, the German people’s reaction doesn't seem to be driven so much by concern for themselves, as much as by the fact that, for them, NSA activity in itself represents a concrete threat. The German Freedom Index for 2014, a baseline study about liberty and data security, which will appear at the beginning of October, shows that many people still use their personal data carelessly.
Instead, one can almost see hurt feelings in the responses. One question reads: “Someone said recently about the bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, ‘When I heard about it, I was very disappointed in the Americans.’ Do you feel the same way, or not?” Fifty-four percent replied that they did.
When the interviewees are given detailed arguments, however, one notices that quite a few of them have sympathy for the actions of the American secret service. A relative majority of 48 percent agree with the statement “Germany and the United States are close friends, and friends shouldn’t spy on each other. That is a great betrayal of trust.” However, 40 percent also agreed with the opposite standpoint: “Of course it’s not nice that the Americans are bugging us, but it’s the job of a secret service to collect information and monitor other people. It’s not just the Americans that do it; we do too.”
It was probably the recent news that American politicians have also been bugged by the German secret service that has taken the edge off of German anger toward the NSA. At any rate, a relative majority of 45 percent, compared to 39 percent, agree with the statement: “I find it embarrassing that it has now come out that we bug the Americans too. Now, nobody can get themselves worked up about the fact that the Americans bug us.”
Obama’s Popularity Has Sunk
However, despite this change, the German-American relationship has suffered considerably in the eyes of the general public. In 2004, shortly after the second war on Iraq, 41 percent of respondents said that in their opinion, the relationship between Germany and the United States was “very good” or “good.” In 2009, that figure had risen to 87 percent. Today, it stands at 34 percent, lower than the level it was 10 years ago.
The standing of the American president has also suffered badly. Here, one can speak of a genuine disenchantment. In November 2008, shortly after Barack Obama won the presidential election, 77 percent of Germans said they had a good opinion of him. The figure was practically the same in January 2013, at 78 percent. By comparison, today, only 47 percent have a good opinion of him. However, the example of Barack Obama shows that today’s situation isn’t comparable with the deep estrangement that was typical of the climate in the middle of the previous decade. The 47 percent who speak positively of Obama appears small in comparison to the figures of previous years, but it is only slightly less than the long-term popularity figures of Clinton, and clearly above those of Carter and Reagan. Current German approval of Obama is thus at a completely normal level, and still far above that of his predecessor George W. Bush, of whom, in 2008, only 5 percent of Germans had a good opinion.
The fact that annoyance over the NSA affair doesn’t run as deep as one may have thought, given the extent of the bugging and the media reports, is due to the tense international situation that puts the discord between Germany and America into perspective. In March 2005, the Allensbach Institute asked the following question for the first time: “Over the next 10 years, which country will represent the greatest danger or biggest threat to peace in the world?” At that time, the respondents rated the United States as one of the most dangerous countries at 35 percent, behind Iran at 50 percent, North Korea at 48 percent, and Iraq in fourth place, at 38 percent. At the time, only 7 percent cited Russia as a danger to peace. Today, Iraq is at 62 percent, Russia at 55 percent, and Syria at 45 percent. They are cited as the countries that pose the greatest threat to world peace. The United States, cited by just 14 percent, lies in 11th place in the rankings.
In such a situation, the protection offered to the Germans by the alliance with the United States means something again. If one asks which countries are particularly important when it comes to protecting world peace, the United States is the clear winner, with 90 percent of German votes. Regarding the question of which country Germany should work the closest with, the French ranked first at 69 percent, followed by the United States with 60 percent. That’s four percentage points less than in January 2013. However, this value is still within the range where answers varied in the preceding years, even if it’s toward the lower end. Only 26 percent agree with the statement: “The United States is the only reliable leading power that can provide peace in the crisis regions of the world.” Fifty-three percent disagree. Nevertheless, that is the highest value for more than a decade. These aren’t particularly impressive changes, and they show that there definitely hasn’t been a dramatic breakdown in trust toward the United States, despite the irritation over the NSA affair.
Threat via New Flashpoints Has an Effect
More obvious are changes in the responses to the question "How can Germany best protect itself?" In 2011, 59 percent said this could best be achieved through its membership in NATO; today, that figure is 71 percent. The number of those who believe this can best be achieved through a stronger common European Union foreign policy — and security policy — rose over the same period from 63 to 68 percent. Those who expressly wanted to rely on a close relationship with the United States, rose from 32 to 38 percent. In the face of threats through new flashpoints, many people are apparently becoming more aware of the importance of Western defensive alliances, and thus also of the importance of ties to the leading power.
One can even speculate as to whether some people now see the commonality of Western values more clearly again due to the war and outrage in Ukraine and the Middle East. The results are not explicit in this regard, but the recent tendency of the American brand to continue deteriorating appears to have ended. Thus, 42 percent of people today agree with the following statement: “The United States is still, as ever, the country of unlimited opportunity, where every man has the chance to make his fortune.” In January 2013, the figure was only at 35 percent.
Therefore, while annoyance over the NSA affair pulls the Germans in one direction, the need for security in the Western alliance is pulling them in the other. Ultimately, the German view of America has neither improved nor deteriorated considerably, but it has become less idealized. More than ever, the United States appears to be like the elder brother, at whose boorishness one is annoyed, but upon whom one relies nevertheless when the neighborhood kids stand threateningly in one's path on the way to school.
*Editor’s note: The author uses “Greens” in reference to Germany’s Green Party.