In its struggle against whistleblowers, the United States has exerted a variegated form of power, one that focuses on documents and an anaemic reading of the law. The international relations canon searches desperately for what that might be. In the classically obtuse language pursued by the IR troupe, it might be deemed “soft power” – there is no military force, though there is a degree of coercion. Such a concept involves concepts of attraction and conviction. There has never been such a thing, however much that straw man is stuffed by the likes of Joseph Nye and his adherents.
Power, by definition, is not soft. It is turgid, tumescent and violent, be it physically, symbolically or psychologically. Nor is it even “smart” in the sense that some scholars would have it. (The national interest was always a fiction of the highest order.) What only matters is the type of violence and coercion the exerciser of that power intends to affect.
The pressing encirclement of Edward Snowden is the empire of paper in action, war by visa, by passport, by documentation. One exists only because of paper, an ontological crime if ever there was one. To borrow an expression from the French designation of irregular migrants, Snowden is as species of political sans papiers.
Since the triumph of inhumane bureaucracy forecast by Franz Kafka’s dystopian vision, the state has become the arbitrary mediator of human identity. Documents and records dictate who you are. Without them, you are invisible, and by definition, absent. In absence, there are no rights. One is not Aristotle’s zoon politikon, the human who is a political animal by inclination, but legalis homo, a creature only recognised by law as lawful.
Notorious examples of this behaviour abound in the register of muck that is history. The U.S. State Department, as did other administrations across the globe, adopted a notorious ‘go slow’ approach when it came to processing claims for asylum by Jewish refugees once Hitler’s regime began its cleansing operations. True, in 1936, it was not necessarily clear that the modern German state would eventually become the efficient killing machine that it did, but such were the times. The precedent was set.
Even in those cases, adequate documentation, whatever that might suggest, was not a guarantee of acceptance into another state. Naturally, having been deprived of German citizenship, many German Jews did not have a national leg to stand on. In the eyes of the cold bureaucrat processing the claims, they were but non-entities scrapping for recognition. Such difficulties dog cases such as Snowden’s, where legal substitutes have to be found. When a state turns on you, what is the recourse?
This is a struggle citizens have been waging for centuries in some form or rather, but after the creation of passports, documentation for travel, and a system of formalised asylum, the political dissident has had to face an array of legal quandaries. What to do if the state of which one is a citizen refuses you a passport, confiscates an existing one or refuses to grant one? Contemptibly, the state’s power to do that suggests the limited ambit of what citizens really mean in the context of state law. If the sovereign can be so fickle about citizenship, it is fitting that he should be abandoned.
Now, powers such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have thrown a spanner, or at the very least something of a shovel, at the system, though they will also have to find some way of facilitating Snowden’s exit from Moscow, assuming he is still there. The empire of paper is riddled with borders, and demands even the naughty to play by the rules. President Evo Morales claims that he is happy to accept Snowden “if he asks”; Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has also offered “humanitarian asylum”, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has added his name to the mix of those willing to offer a safe haven.
Such offers, as was shown by Ecuador, are contingent on circumstance and expediency. The initial reports of a refugee pass granted by the government were enthusiastic, but the document was subsequently revoked, leaving Snowden to linger amidst the sprawl of Sheremetyevo international airport.
For convenience, assuming he is still there, there is still the problem he faces of being on a flight that is grounded before leaving. As Sheremetyevo sticks to commercial flights, Snowden would either have to brave one or make it to another facility used by foreign dignitaries. So far, the latter option seems very unlikely.
The Russian response to his claims for asylum have been enthusiastic, largely because they don’t want him in their midst. Russian lawmakers will be insensible at the suggestion that this is because of the reach of U.S. power. Another theory that might be offered is that President Vladimir Putin is a man of secrecy, a former KGB man who specialised as a creature with no face. There is surely a strain in his body that finds sympathy with the NSA crowd, the shadowy war against political misfits and missionaries. The watched citizen, in that school of thought, is a better citizen.
All in all, the interest in Snowden as a politically engaged responsible citizen is less important than recognising him as a legal, or illegal creature. As it stands, he occupies a ghastly purgatory at this point, a literal “transit” zone which will determine what control he passes through next. Even those willing to offer him refuge demand their own set of paperwork to be done. Snowden knows that, as we all do. But it makes the empire of paper only slightly less pitiful or sinister.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org