Center for Strategic Communication

 By Patricia Lee Sharpe

You’ve got to wonder what sensitive subjects German Chancellor Angela Merkel was foolishly discussing on her cell phone before Edward Snowden’s revelations confirmed what any seasoned national leader takes for granted: countries spy on allies as well as enemies.

This doesn’t mean that countries like the tit-for-tat when they in turn become targets of surveillance. Nor does it mean that “friendly” spies aren’t prosecuted when they’re caught. The U.S.-Israel nexus has been as tight as country-to-country relations get, yet even Israel’s spies aren’t tolerated when they’re uncovered: the U.S. tossed one in jail for a good long time. So, whether Angela was exchanging birthday greetings or discussing trade policy on an unencrypted phone, she was careless. Or was she merely exhibiting the I’m-exempt-from-the-normal-rules arrogance that often afflicts extremely successful politicians?

Yes, it’s inconvenient when you can’t have a private chat even with friends and family, but that’s the pain and price of reaching the top of the pyramid. Your life changes.

Anyhow, given the fact that Merkel threw a hissy fit over the very notion that friends might spy on friends, as in Americans on Germans, her so-what reaction last week to evidence that U.S. officials’ phone conversations might also be also fodder for snoops was very interesting.

There are (at least) four issues that might have agitated dear Angela vis-à-vis the pretty good evidence that the Russians had not only recorded, but had also leaked the contents of a phone conversation between a high level U.S. State Department official and an ambassador. They are: (1) I’m shocked shocked that the Russians are spying on U.S. diplomatic communications, which means they’re probably spying on all of us. (2) I’m shocked shocked that the Russians have made public the results of their clandestine surveillance; (3) I’m shocked shocked that American diplomats have been denigrating, behind our backs, the European approach to the situation in Ukraine. (4) I’m shocked shocked that American diplomats swear like troopers when they think a conversation is private.

Did she excoriate the Russians for spying? Nope. No diatribes directed at a conniving Putin. Did she criticize the Russians for broadcasting the results of said spying? No. After all, what was leaked was a very useful bit of information for the Europeans, too. Spasiba, Volya.

Yet Merkel went ballistic about the very notion that American diplomats might criticize the European Union in a private conversation. Behind our backs! How shameful! As if everything any European politician says, confidentially, about Americans high or low is superlatively complimentary.

And this, finally, is what really got to Merkel: the language. To wit: the use of the f-word.

Now we know that Angela Merkel is the daughter of a clergyman. The language in her childhood home may have been very decorous, but she’s risen to the top in the rough world of politics. Is it possible that German politicians never ever use the German equivalent of “fucking idiot,” for example? Not even when they’re furious? Not even when they’re balked by a powerful opponent? Not even when they think some move is stupid beyond belief? Not even when it’s absolutely essential to let off steam, and cussing beats punching?

My German is rudimentary, but I’ve never met a language without a colorful collection of words and idioms that beginning students have no access to. Usually those vocabularies are traceable to the barnyard and the bedroom. Like “shit” and “fuck” and much much worse.

So what’s really bugging Angela Merkel? Why is she disproportionately angered by real politik when practiced by Americans with extensive, sometimes graphic vocabularies? Contradictory behavior often masks inner conflict or indecision. Sometimes it’s a sign of authentic feelings or thoughts piercing through a mask. That may be what’s happening with the German Chancellor. But regarding what?

In short, it may be that the important question isn’t who’s bugging Angela, but what’s bugging her. I’ll let the Europe specialists wrestle with that one.