Earlier this January, President Obama gave his first-ever one-on-one interview on German television. The background of this rare interview was news reports originating last year that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored communications of European citizens – and thereby had seemingly even listened in on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private phone calls. In the wake of these reports, many Germans reacted with much anger towards the spy revelations. Similarly, many top German government officials – even those who are typically very “pro-American” – openly expressed their concerns that the NSA activities are potentially a threat to civil liberties and privacy rights of German citizens. Chancellor Merkel herself said the claims that the NSA eavesdropped on her cell phone “had severely shaken” relationships between Europe and the US and that such practice among friends “was never acceptable, no matter in what situation.” Prior to the interview, Obama’s general public speech on NSA reforms – during which he acknowledged that reforms were necessary, but that the NSA will continue to play an important role in gathering information from other countries – had disappointed a lot of Germans, particularly because he made clear that he would not be pursuing an international “no spy agreement,” which some had demanded.
Choosing to sit down for a personal interview, Obama used the foreign policy tool of “public diplomacy,” with the objective of trying to engage and inform the German audience about his take on the current NSA situation. He attempted to “win over hearts and minds” of the people by stating that the US does, in fact, not seek to invade people’s privacy on unnecessary grounds.
Certainly, Obama regarded the interview a crucial necessity in light of the on-going negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama had set the goal of “doubling US exports by 2015”; and, according to many economists, a transatlantic free trade area could bring the US closer to this aspiring, currently unlikely-to-be-achievable goal. However, there have also been many counterarguments against the TTIP on both sides of the Atlantic; particularly, Europeans have expressed concerns with regards to climate, environmental and agricultural issues such as genetically modified food. As a strong supporter of the TTIP though, Obama knows that Germany as Europe’s largest economy plays a key role in eventually making the TTIP reality. Thus, mending ties with Germany and pursuing damage control was a priority.
The risks of such an interview were that he [Obama] could be perceived as disappointing once again. Nations have always been spying on each other, and he could not give much information beyond what he had already said in his speech. Thus, it was clear from the very start that he could merely try to appeal to Germans in a personal manner.
Nonetheless, I think President Obama made a good decision in choosing to do this unusual interview. While some people were disappointed once again and had hoped Obama would call for an international “no spy zone,” the mere symbol of agreeing to an interview with a German news channel sent a strong message. When the leader of the free world takes the time to interview with someone unknown to him but very recognizable in Germany, this shows Germans that he cares and makes him – and his viewpoint – more relatable and accessible to both German policy makers and the public in general. Similar to his prior public speech, Obama discussed how the presidential directive he put forward clearly indicates what will and what will not be done with regards to overseas surveillance, assuring Germans that the NSA will not be listening to people’s phone calls or read their emails if there are no national security threats involved. So, while choosing to maintain the majority of intelligence capabilities to keep US citizens as well as citizens from allied countries safe, the interview certainly offered him the opportunity to try to “connect” with the Germans. He particularly appealed to many when he addressed East Germany’s particular experience with a spying apparatus that was out of control and assured them that he was well-aware of this unique history and stressed that such an invasion would not happen again under his Presidency. With millions of people in Germany watching the roughly 16-minute interview that aired during prime time on one of the most popular TV channels, Obama unquestionably got the exposure he had hoped for. Thus, the interview was an important and effective step to assuage some concerns and helped to rebuild trust.