REPUTATIONS are fragile things. They take years to build but can be destroyed in minutes. Take Barack Obama. The US president’s standing worldwide has taken a nasty blow following revelations by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden of America’s sprawling spying operations.
Nowhere is the disenchantment as acute as it is in Europe. Quite simply, Europeans have fallen out of love with Obama. The romance, admiration and fawning is over. The spell is broken.
Europeans have discovered that the US president is a mere mortal, not as they thought a demi-god. All Europeans, whether ordinary or extraordinary, feel betrayed, cheated, spurned. Disappointment fills the air.
The first black American president of the US was supposed to be different, sensitive, more caring compared to his white — especially his Republican white — predecessors. Europeans never liked George W. Bush or the wars he fought and wanted his allies to fight alongside him. Europe was divided over the war in Iraq and joined the Afghanistan offensive reluctantly, unsteadily.
Obama, on the other hand, spoke like a true European, of climate change, the aspirations of ordinary people, of creating global peace and stability. They wished European leaders spoke as eloquently, harboured the same vision and dreams.
Europe’s love affair with Obama is over. Never mind the civilian casualties caused by drone attacks on militants in Pakistan and Yemen, never mind the prison at Guantanamo Bay and never mind the one-sided US defence of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
Europeans are outraged by America’s snooping around on their territory and their embassies. How could Europe’s special, like-minded best friend be spying on allies? How could the US bugging machine be deployed to keep track of the activities of European governments and European Union (EU) institutions? What about the love we shared? What about trust?
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said: “I feel treated … like the representative of the enemy. Is this the basis for a constructive relationship on the basis of mutual trust? I think no.”
Not surprisingly given the traditionally sceptical view of Washington in France, President François Hollande has used some of the harshest language, telling reporters that “we cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies”. Terrorism is real and “there are systems that have to be checked, especially to fight terrorism,” the French leader said, “but I don’t think that it is in our embassies or in the European Union that this threat exists.”
It was not so much the fact of the spying as its sheer scale that alarmed Europeans. Elmar Brok, an outspoken German who is chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said that “the spying has reached dimensions that I did not think were possible for a democratic country”. He said the US had “lost all balance — George Orwell is nothing by comparison”.
The European Commission said it had ordered a security sweep of EU buildings following the bugging disclosures. José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, had “instructed the competent commission services to proceed to a comprehensive … security sweep and check”, a spokeswoman said. The sentiment is that the American intelligence system has quite simply become too large for careful political oversight.
The reaction has been particularly angry in Germany, with its history of Nazism and the East German Stasi. The outrage is made more acute by the disclosure that a large part of the American interception efforts were aimed against Germany.
The irony is that Obama received a warm welcome in Berlin on June 19, just days before the German magazine Der Spiegel made the spying revelations. After the reports on US surveillance of Germany, Berlin accused Washington of treating it like the Soviet Union, “like a Cold War enemy”.
Der Spiegel quoted the Snowden documents as revealing that the US taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany a month. “We can attack the signals of most foreign third-class partners, and we do,” Der Spiegel quoted a passage in the NSA document as saying.
Demands from France and the European Parliament for a cancellation of scheduled talks on a new transatlantic free trade agreement have been defused by an offer from Washington to start “parallel discussions” with the EU on its spying operations on Europeans.
Some of the European angst over the US activities is slightly overdone. After all, France is also well known as having a sophisticated, well-funded intelligence system that also spies on allies and enemies to protect its national and commercial interests. Britain has also been snooping on its European friends, according to newspaper reports and so do many other countries. Still, the transatlantic partnership has taken a hit. Disillusioned by American perfidy, Europeans appear lost and rudderless. After all, America has stood by Europe in its worst hour of need and still provides a comforting security umbrella through Nato, the US-led Western military alliance.
Europeans have long believed that nothing can be done on the global stage without American leadership, even if, as in the case of Libya, it is “from behind”.
The discovery that even as they glad-hand Europe, officials in Washington are snooping around their embassies and offices has clearly shaken Europeans. True, the transatlantic trade talks will start and policymakers from both sides will continue to talk of their shared vision and destiny. It is also true that just as they can be destroyed, reputations can also be repaired and rebuilt through determined hard work.
Obama does have three years ahead of him to once again charm his European friends and allies. Everyone knows that Obama can talk the talk. Once, that was enough for Europe. Now, however, Europeans also want the US president to walk his talk — and prove that he can deliver on his promises.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.