World Cup chants reveal true state of U.S.-German relations

July 17, 2014

 Germany's national soccer players acknowledge their fans after their win over the U.S. at the end of their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in Recife

As Germany basks in its World Cup victory, it’s easy to forget that one of the most telling geopolitical moments of the tournament came during the Germany-U.S. game. As American fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” the Germans countered with, “N-S-A! N-S-A! N-S-A!”

In the weeks since, relations have crumbled. After it learned that a German intelligence officer allegedly spied for the United States, Germany expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin — a rare move by a close American ally.

This isn’t a sudden reversal in relations. The fallout from surveillance scandals has been sharp and steady over the past year. In 2013, Germans grew wary about the extent of U.S. espionage after Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that the United States had been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone since 2002. A German parliamentary committee asked Snowden to provide testimony for an inquiry on foreign intelligence activities. The request, which Snowden rejected, was sure to rankle the United States, but Germany pushed forward anyway: One country’s traitor was another’s key witness.

It’s no surprise that of all foreign countries, President Barack Obama’s approval rating has fallen the most in Brazil and Germany, two countries with leaders monitored by the National Security Agency.

But all the “friendly spying” scandals are just one piece of the puzzle. There are even deeper fissures causing a lot of the bad blood — and suggesting more of it to come.

Russian President Putin speaks to German Chancellor Merkel and FIFA President Blatter during the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de JaneiroA poorly defined, more risk-averse U.S. role in the world has Germany and other allies confused and frustrated about Washington’s commitments and preferences. They are questioning U.S. security guarantees, as well as Washington’s willingness to spend military, economic and diplomatic capital on foreign policy — called into question by deep gridlock in Washington, vacillation in Syria and a questionable commitment to the “Asia pivot.

The Obama administration’s weaker second-term foreign-policy team and its reactive, ineffectual decision-making have made matters worse. While many U.S. alliances have suffered from this foreign policy decline, America’s relationship with Germany has taken the biggest hit.

Germany is also unnerved by the potential for economic conflict between the United States and a German-led Europe. The global reach of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency gives the United States an extraterritorial privilege. America’s sanctions regime, which extends far beyond its borders, further empowers the United States. Sanctions can apply when there are no American citizens involved. They can target non-American branches of foreign institutions that simply have a U.S. presence, such as French bank BNP Paribas, which recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion fine. With more than $15 billion in fines now levied against more than 20 international banks — mostly European — Germany is alarmed by the United States’ tendency to use its economic clout as an extension of its foreign policy, one that the Germans see as increasingly fickle, opaque and misaligned from their own.

In terms of their values and preferences — including human rights, liberal free markets and rule of law — Germany and America see eye to eye. But in an environment in which American foreign policy is eroding even as America’s reach extends deeper into the global economy and communication network, Germany is worried about how the United States will wield its power. That’s especially true when only 38 percent of Germans still consider America “a trustworthy partner,” according to a survey that predates the most recent intelligence scandal. In anticipation of its growing resentment and resistance to American overreach, Germany is already ramping up relations with other countries to hedge its bets.

China-Germany is one of the most important relationships to watch in a world of declining American foreign policy. Last week, Merkel traveled to Beijing — her seventh trip to China as chancellor — inking lucrative economic deals, and finding common ground with the Chinese over U.S. surveillance overreach. During the visit, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang commiserated: “China and Germany, it can be said, are both victims of hacking attacks.”

Both countries prioritize commerce over philosophical differences. China is the top foreign investment destination for German companies; in a recent survey, 90 percent of German enterprises in China expressed interest in expanding their business there. Meanwhile, China’s investment in Germany grew by 28.4 percent from 2010 to 2013.

A visit from Secretary of State John Kerry may keep tensions with Germany from boiling over for now, but it won’t get Washington out of hot water. Washington needs to understand how deep the tensions go, and treat a reset with Germany as a top priority at the head-of-state level. It needs to make Berlin feel like a true partner. Unfortunately, that strategy is looking unlikely.

PHOTOS: Germany’s national soccer players acknowledge their fans after their win over the U.S. at the end of their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in Recife June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and FIFA President Sepp Blatter (C) during the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Alexey Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin




We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

So because of some stupid spying, Germans would rather have their leader hanging out with the leader of a country who’s army raped an estimated 2 million German women, and then permanently occupied them after the war? OK… Why don’t you guys go ahead and do that then. Have fun.

I’ll try to remember how upset they are with us, when I visit my friend who was a kid in one of the concentration camps, and still has the ID tattoo. Yes, I’ll try and remember how upset the Germans are, because we did a little spying on them. Gee, I hope they forgive us.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

NSA filth along with a fascist congress have destroyed faith in America, inside and out. The only hope for America now is a US voter that can clean house.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

When he was first elected President, Obama had almost infinite credit in Germany. I remember his speech in Berlin during his first campaign. I still do not understand how he has been able to squander that credit. The value of the information collected by CIA, NSA and their Five Eyes colleagues is nothing against the value of the trust lost, both outside and inside the US. “Yes We Can”, ha!

@dd606, the impression that Germany is full of Putin-lovers is quite wrong. Some extreme right and left wing people are, but the majority (like me) thinks he is quite dangerous. The strange thing is, Putin condemns his enemies as “Fascists”, but his friends quite often are real ones, like German NPD, or Front National in France.

Posted by dingodoggie | Report as abusive

dd606 America still occupies Germany, Russia does not.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

anarcurt: America’s Marshall Plan helped to make Germany a European powerhouse, and American president Reagan pushed the Soviets (Russian) Gorbachev to break down the Berlin wall.
These are the fact… whatever you wrote is a typical propaganda trick à la Putin.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Time for Germans to impose stiff sanctions on Putin.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

dd606: Accepting, for the sake of argument, that the Soviet Army “raped an estimated 2 million German women, and then permanently occupied them after the war …. ” I have always been amazed at the restraint shown by the Russians after 1945, considering what the Germans did during their own occupation of the western part of the USSR.

Posted by Ludwig | Report as abusive

Correction: A poorly defined, more risk-averse U.S. role in the world has Germany and other allies worried that the US umbrella is being folded.

Posted by Zaichik | Report as abusive


Posted by REnninga | Report as abusive

Germany is not the only one sick of Obama’s foreign policy and ineffectual decision-making. He is a grand failure as a president and as a human rights Nobel Prize winner. His drone attacks on civilians mirror his support for Israel’s unprovoked murderous attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Obama and Netanyahu are both callous thugs. By aiding and abetting Netanyahu’s campaign of genocide, Obama has locked in a damning legacy that will haunt him forever.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Drunken sports fans pumped up with adrenaline. Yep, that’s a great way to gauge just about anything.

Posted by Hard2Believe | Report as abusive