The Spy Who Told Me: Keep an Eye on Germany - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Anti-government protester stands at a road block in Kiev on February 3, 2014. Tens of thousands of protesters, buoyed by pledges of support from Europe and the United States, rallied in Ukraine on Sunday in a bid to wring new concessions from President Viktor Yanukovych. More than 50,000 people could be seen on Kiev's barricaded Independence Square -- that has become the epicentre of a two-month protest movement -- and thousands more were arriving. Photo by Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto
SourceEmeric Fohlen/NurPhoto/Corbis


Because you shouldn’t be watching Angela Merkel — there are other German faces on the horizon who matter a whole lot more.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

One of the most important geopolitics and security conferences recently ended in Munich, Germany. The 50th annual Security Conference (also known as the Wehrkunde) draws together many of the world’s foreign and defense ministers, senior government officials, think tankers and academic specialists in a round table discussion about what’s at stake for the next year in global security. The American team included Secretary of State John Kerry; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and Senators McCain, Graham, Ayotte, Murphy, Blunt and more.

The weekend revealed some of the most central security questions at stake in 2014…

At this summit, like its many others, global leaders discuss everything you’d expect us to be saying about global hot spots. But most of us already know much of what’s at stake in security over the next year: Syria — where, tragically, we have seen little progress; China-Japan instability — where many global eyes will continue to turn in 2014.

Yet, surprisingly, what the conference showed me was perhaps more about its host country, Germany, than its participants. The weekend revealed some of the most central security questions at stake in 2014 — from the future of the West to the future of one of the West’s most important countries.


What happened: The NSA controversy and Snowden showed their ugly fangs once more. While I knew this was a deeply felt issue in Europe, I was still surprised by the depth of emotion — especially among Germans, who appear personally affronted by what they believe to have been widespread surveillance of their citizenry.

Former head of the German foreign intelligence service Dr. August Hanning, for his part, was one of a few German voices vocally onboard with the American intelligence mission, saying that such American intelligence had prevented attacks and saved German lives. 

What it means: This is enormously complicated. Many of the Americans present sought to assure Germans that the U.S. sees their country as a close partner. Our perspective: Whatever surveillance took place (leaving aside the allegation about monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone, now prohibited by President Obama) was geared toward detecting terrorists who might be using German territory; recall that the 9/11 hijackers spent time in Hamburg.

What to look for next: I left knowing that we’re not past the issue. There remains widespread and deep misunderstanding about the goal of American intelligence gathering — and much more dialogue is necessary to establish a shared view between the U.S. and other nations about what is appropriate and what is not.

Protestors in costumes and signs outdoors during the day

Masked protesters march in Munich in February 2014 to protest against the security conference held in the city.

Source Hanno Polomsky/Demotix/Corbis


What happened: On his home turf, the weekend was a big deal for German President Joachim Gauck. He made a remarkable speech, declaring that the time had come for Germany to step up and take on more global responsibility. Gauck, a former Protestant pastor born in Germany’s pre-unification East, holds a position that is largely ceremonial but traditionally carries great moral authority.

What it means: In a country that, since WWII, has been reticent to assert itself and has often taken its lead from the U.S., Gauck’s forcefully delivered message hit many Germans like a thunderbolt.

What to look for next: Some will see Gauck’s speech as responding to a widespread — and I believe inaccurate — sense that the U.S. is stepping back from some its traditional responsibilities. But I’m betting that this will turn out be good news for Washington at a time when we need a more engaged and active Europe at our side.


What happened:  While most people have probably heard about the disruptive demonstrations taking place on the Ukrainian homefront, Munich brought together, in rare combination, two of the people who could most powerfully affect the situation on the ground in Ukraine. They were: the Ukrainian foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, and the chief opposition leader, former boxing champion Viatali Klytchko.

Ukrainian protesters — whose voices have been seen as the test case for whether the nation moves to the right or left — have been demanding that the government move toward the West by opting for an association agreement with the European Union (E.U.) rather than the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union. At the conference, Kozhara insisted that if Ukraine were to adopt E.U. standards, the nation would risk a loss of jobs and total economic collapse.

But in case anyone needed a reminder that diplomacy is at its most visceral in person, Kozhara’s comments led Klytchko to leap up to his full 6 foot 8 inches and begin handing around photographs of what he said proved the government was killing and torturing innocent civilians. He pointed to Ukraine’s neighbors — Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltics — as nations that had successfully charged ahead toward Western standards. 

What it means: Clearly, Klytchko and the opposition have persuaded the security community that the government is behaving abusively — and that Ukraine is heading in the wrong direction. 

What to look for next: This has the feel of being round one of a long struggle. But if the Eastern European revolutions of the early 1990s hold any clues, governments have trouble staying a course that is opposed by thousands of people who refuse to leave the streets and squares. The Ukrainian opposition looks to have staying power — and in Klytchko they just might have a leader (the absence of one usually causes such movements to peter out). The month ahead is likely to be pivotal. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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