It’s been nearly 20 years since a German president was received in the White House. Joachim Gauck, a dissident who organized opposition to the East German state, is calling on the US to practice the values it preaches.
They are not political counterparts. One is commander in chief of the world’s last remaining superpower. The other fulfills merely a ceremonial function in Europe’s leading nation. Elevated above politics, President Joachim Gauck exercises a moral authority that President Barack Obama, who wields real power in all its lethal and morally ambiguous dimensions, does not have.
The two men will meet on Wednesday. It’s been 18 years since a German president set foot in the White House. The timing is no coincidence of course. President Gauck has arrived in America to celebrate the 25th anniversary of German re-unification, a seminal historical event in which the United States played an instrumental role.
Gauck helped write that history as a Protestant pastor, political dissident and civil rights activist in East Germany. After the fall of communism, he served as the curator of the Stasi archive, which contains decades of records gathered by the East German secret police on the daily lives of average citizens.
The archive – which is open to journalists, historians and not least of all the victims of surveillance – has become a testament to the importance of government transparency and the right to privacy.
According to Jeffrey Anderson, Gauck’s meeting with Obama presents an occasion to speak about the importance of privacy, not from a policy perspective, but from a moral and philosophical standpoint.
“It would be an opportunity for him to underscore the historical underpinning of this mistrust of centralized authority and the cherished value that is attached to privacy in Germany, and how that sets it apart from the United States where there is a bit more laissez-faire attitude about privacy,” Anderson, director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies, told DW.
From the president’s podium, Gauck has frequently drawn on his life experience to speak about the importance freedom. It’s not surprising that he chose Philadelphia, with all its symbolism, as the first stop of his visit to America. The city was the first capital of the United States, the site where independence was declared from Great Britain and the constitution was written.
During his address at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, the German president expressed admiration for the democratic aspirations and institutions articulated in America’s founding documents.
“He gave the speech in Philadelphia today also looking at a home audience,” Cornelius Adebahr, an expert on German foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.
“This should remind people in Germany today that the US is not all about the NSA and Afghanistan and the wars of these days,” Adebahr said. “There’s an idea behind America which is very close to the enlightenment and to European ideals.”
But Gauck did not seek only to flatter his American hosts. He expressed frank concern about “the image of America emerging in parts of Europe and certainly in Germany.” The German president called out the National Security Agency and asked why US intelligence services record the phone numbers of German cabinet ministers, even the agricultural minister.
“What does that have to do with countering terrorism?” Gauck asked. “And why do German citizens get the impression that incursions into their private sphere are a democratically uncontrollable result of fending off a terrorist threat?”
NSA scandal unresolved
Gauck’s speech came on the same day the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Brussels overturned the Safe Harbor treaty between the EU and US, which had been in place for 15 years. The treaty allowed American companies, which meet minimum privacy standards, to transfer the personal data of European customers to servers in the US.
Tuesday’s ruling struck down the treaty over questions about whether the US truly is a safe harbor for the data of EU citizens. The court cited NSA surveillance programs documented in the leaks by whistleblower and former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden as cause for concern.It’s been more than two years since Snowden first revealed NSA mass surveillance to the public. Based on Snowden’s leaks, newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that US intelligence collected Germans’ metadata in bulk and had also tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. The German government subsequently called for a no-spy agreement with the US, but there was little interest in Washington.
“The NSA scandal hasn’t really been resolved, it’s just lingering around,” Adebahr said. “We haven’t seen anything in terms of fundamental changes.”
“The NSA scandal seems to be a very special German thing,” he said. “It’s not a scandal here [in the US], the spying on foreigners, and it’s not a scandal in most of the other European countries.”
‘Win back lost trust’
Nevertheless, Gauck made clear to his American audience on Tuesday that some Germans, in the wake of the NSA scandal, question what the US stands for.
“They are wondering whether a community of shared values still exists at all between our two countries, or indeed whether the United States has cut itself loose from our shared foundations,” the German president said.
“It seems to me that we have not yet arrived at a viable balance of interests here,” he continued. “This would be a good opportunity for the United States to win back lost trust.”