Two weeks ago I used this space to make the case that America’s internal political dysfunction, while serious, does not mean the end of its leading role in the world. Regardless of what one may think of Barack Obama’s administration, or the United States more generally, Washington’s financial, military, diplomatic and cultural weight will continue to be significant.
Political problems at home are, at least in theory, something Americans can fix. Since I wrote that column, however, one event outside the Obama administration’s control has complicated the equation: the latest revelations about the extent and the depth of America’s overseas spying programmes.
One might say that revelations that the United States has been monitoring the mobile phone of Germany’s Chancellor possibly for a decade or more, as well as spying on the leaders of Brazil, Mexico and other friendly nations really should not surprise anyone.
As the breadth and scope of the data and telephone monitoring efforts initiated under George W. Bush, and continued by Obama, have become clear the administration has regularly sought to calm angry American voters by insisting that domestic spying has been limited. The unspoken corollary (unspoken at least on the official level), was that foreign communications were more or less fair game. Add to this WikiLeaks revelations of more than a year ago about the US intelligence community urging American diplomats to provide the contact numbers of foreign officials and, well, do the math. If anything we ought to be surprised that it has taken all of us in the media this long to figure things out.
In Washington last weekend the reactions were relatively predictable. Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York who chairs the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representative was dismissive of friendly governments and their concerns.
“The reality is the NSA [National Security Agency] has saved thousands of lives not just in the United States but in France and Germany and throughout Europe,” he told NBC News, adding: “the French are ones to talk. The fact is they’ve carried out spying operations against the US, both the government and industry.”
Even lawmakers bothered by the revelations seemed concerned mainly with patching up relationships rather than debating just how necessary all this data gathering actually is.
For example, consider the comments of Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, speaking to CBS News:
“I think the revelations from [Edward] Snowden and the secrets that have been revealed are doing significant damage to our bilateral relationships with Germany and Mexico, with the other countries where the suggestion is that we’ve listened in. So I think we have repair work to do, and I think we have hard questions we need to ask the NSA about what is really happening in this programme.”
The problem, in other words, was not so much in the concept as in the execution.
It is easy to look at the debate over the NSA and say ‘this too shall pass’. More than a few commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have noted that as angry as some European governments may now be, none of them are likely to allow that anger to get in the way of anything really important (like, say, a trade deal).
Moreover, King’s argument that everyone does this sort of thing, especially the French, has found a receptive audience among Americans. Indeed, this is a rare moment when more than a few Democrats find themselves in agreement with the combative Republican. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, went out of her way last week to tell an audience of an occasion when she was sure the French government had been monitoring her private phone conversations.
If you accept the ‘everyone does it’ argument then the logical conclusion is that the outrage currently on display in Europe and Latin America is mainly for show, but there is a sense of betrayal underlying the comments of many non-American officials that Washington ignores at its peril.
Germany, Brazil and Mexico are not going to abandon their close relationships with the United States over these revelations. They will, however, treat their relationships with Washington more carefully for months, perhaps years, to come. The NSA’s spying programmes are easy to joke about, but the hard truth is that they will now colour any discussion among governments for the foreseeable future and beyond. That does not alter relationships in any essential way, but it is likely to tweak them in too many small ways to mention.
The final result may be something we would necessarily recognize today – and something not necessarily to Washington’s taste. The fact that such a development will take time does not mean it will not be significant.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.