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NSA returned to center stage last week thanks to revelations that it has tapped the phones of European leaders. The resulting ruckus raises three questions: why? how far will the targeting governments go in demanding redress? how will Washington respond? In considering them, I look at the political/psychological underpinnings of the Euro-Americans relationship.
On Tuesday Barack Obama called President Francois Hollande of France to explain the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance of French government offices, businesses and private citizens. Obama stated that this was a well meaning attempt to protect both countries from Islamic terrorism. He offered to “reexamine” the program so as to determine whether the right balance was struck between public safety and privacy rights. On Wednesday Obama called Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to explain the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance of German government offices, businesses and private citizens – including Merkel’s personal cell phone. Obama told her, too, that the program was crucial to their two countries’ well-being but that he would “reexamine” its modalities. He added that the United States was not now monitoring her phone (using the present perfect tense). He expressed nominal regrets and pled ignorance, but refrained from pledging to cease and desist from spying on America’s allies. Being the last remaining super power and champion of the “free world’ means that you never have to say you are sorry – or, at least, that is the conviction of the White House. Being Barack Obama means that behavior others experience as offensive does not elicit an admission of error. Being Barack Obama also means granting your security and intelligence chiefs autonomy and never challenging them.
The European leaders thus joined Presidents Pena Nieto of Mexico and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil on the list of 35 heads of government who receive routine and comprehension attention from the United States’ intelligence agencies. The ruckus sparked by these revelations is a distraction for a Washington preoccupied with handling multiple Middle East crises while keeping its own domestic household from grinding to a halt. What others think and feel is always a secondary concern of American officials who view even close, historical allies as auxiliaries to its campaigns of global management. Will the intensity of the reaction in European capitals oblige them to take more fully into account foreigners’ chafing at the terms of the partnership and specifically the modalities of the “war on terror?” Will the Europeans press ahead with proposals for an enforceable code of conduct on surveillance in the face of American resistance and possible threats to curb intelligence sharing? Will Washington express contrition or offer a forthcoming response?
If the past is a reliable guide to the present and future, the answers are “no,” “no” and “no.” As a preface to the reasoning that leads to this conclusion, we should examine why Washington has undertaken so extensive a project in the first place. There are three intersecting and mutually reinforcing vectors at play. One is technological determinism. Simply put, whatever can be done will be done. The technical resources of the United States’ spy agencies are enormous. $50 billion a year over more than a decade buys you a lot of sophisticated hardware, refined software and the organizational means to deploy it. However inefficiently these vast sums are spent, they do produce enormous capability. The logic of the technical systems, strengthened by bureaucratic momentum, ensures that it will not sit idle. Only a fraction is applied to ferret out information about the doings of predefined militant groups who are finite in number despite the generous definition of who qualifies used by American officials. Another modest fraction is needed to sweep up the trillions of electronic messages sent or received by Americans on their myriad gadgets. That leaves considerable excess capacity available to engage in a similar vacuuming in friendly countries. American intelligence agencies employ roughly three million persons, one million of whom (like Edward Snowden) received “top secret” security clearances. Unless data is generated to keep them occupied, staff budgets risk being cut. Or, they might use their free time to engage in mischievous activities.
The niceties of legality and sovereignty are cavalierly overlooked in an atmosphere pervaded by the anxieties and insecurities generated by 9/11 and subsequently institutionalized in the GWOT. There is a sense of overarching mission that provides a convenient justification for doing anything and everything that adds to the amount of information at the disposal of the American government about what is going on everywhere in the world. Differentiations among countries, among specific targets, among threat assessments are elided in the compulsion to know all. “American security above all else” is the motto etched on the psyches of government leaders, intelligence officials and operators. The resulting omnibus approach to information gathering has been publicly proclaimed and justified by Director of NSA General Keith Alexander and his brother-in-arms for defense of the realm James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. It is popularly known as the “build a bigger haystack” strategy for intelligence gathering.
No one who holds a responsible or influential position in the American security establishment questions that premise. Any conceivable major alteration in the multiple collection programs being conducted around the world would be blocked by this powerful systemic inertia.
This attitude corresponds with the still deepened entrenched conviction that the world system places unique obligations on the United States that it only can meet strenuous self assertion. Talk of an emerging multipolar world with the attendant requirement of cultivating the arts of multilateralism cuts no ice among the American foreign policy community. Impulses and aptitudes are uncongenial to such an adaptation. Oddly, practical signs of diminishing American latitude for willful action has the opposite effect, i.e. the resulting frustration prompts redoubled efforts to prove that the world in fact is not changing.
The situation on the other side of the balance points to a similar conclusion. However, the logic in Europe is somewhat different. What the two sides have in common in a greatly exaggerated fear of terrorist attack. This free floating anxiety, or dread, originates with the trauma of 9/11 as Europeans imagined themselves the victims of an atrocity on that scale. It was deepened and perpetuated by the Madrid and London bombings eight years ago. By any standard measure, the actual casualties suffered in these attacks is low. They number less those killed or injured in the waves of small scale violence that struck Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Perceptions of the menace are magnified by the 9/11 events and by the ascription to al-Qaida and affiliates of capabilities far beyond what they ever had and, most certainly, beyond the wildest dreams of the fragmented franchises that today carry the al-Qaida brand name. Moreover, that itself makes the questionable assumption that the dreams of al-Shabaab, al-Qaidi in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaidi in the Arabian Peninsula et al actually extend to the West given their local agendas, focus and means.
To be perfectly honest, we should admit that the spectre of Islamic terrorism carries more fearsome imagery than does homegrown terrorism. Alien Muslim names and faces scare us. This subjective reality is an objective fact of life. Moreover, European politicians harbor another fear: namely, that a bloody terrorist incident could evoke a popular reaction that holds them accountable and thereby could threaten their tenure in office. That latter fear exercises a hold over political minds in Washington as well.
Are these circumstances determinant when it comes to unbounded American electronic surveillance of European countries? After all, it is hard to see how the tapping of Angel Merkel’s cell phone or Francois Hollande’s Elysee line makes Americans safer. It is true that there are other, unrelated advantages that might accrue to the United States government. Reliable first-hand knowledge of thinking about upcoming trade talks, for example, could be helpful to the American side. This apparently was the aim of one surveillance program directed at the Mexican government. Intra-governmental allied deliberations about intervention in the Syrian civil war or acceptable terms of a nuclear deal with Iran also might be of some marginal diplomatic value. On balance, though, these benefits hardly seem worth the cost of alienating friends and estranging European leaders from Mr. Obama.
This appraisal assumes that the protests of European leaders are not just rhetoric designed to placate domestic resentment at the intrusive American invasion of their privacy. It is by no means certain that this is the case. For months, they have known that the US had been collecting their citizens’ communication in contravention of national laws and EU standards without doing more than uttering a “tsk tsk.” If this week’s remonstrance is personal pique, it will not overcome the deep seated inhibition about challenging American high handedness. European countries, leaders and publics, are habituated to a dependence on the United States that entails more than tangible security. Indeed, it goes deeper than any combination of utilitarian considerations. Rather, it is an entrenched psychological fact of life. The “war on terror” has reinforced that psychological relationship – a classic dominant-subordinate relationship.
EUROPE IN THE GWOT
Let us bear in mind that European governments willingly have served as auxiliaries in the GWOT war. Every NATO country except France acted as an accessory to the rendition program that seized and delivered a multitude of vaguely identified suspects for interrogation and torture. A few of the “black sites” were on European soil. All those leaders took extreme steps to ensure that their collaboration remained secret. 
The official reactions to revelatory reports by Amnesty International, The Washington Post, Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, and then others, were as remarkable as the actions cited. Firm statements emanated from one European official after another that they knew nothing of the matter. The reports were uniformly dismissed as based on unverifiable “rumors, allegations and accusations.” These leaders were lying (being untruthful?)– as now is proven.
A Council of Europe investigation led by Swiss Senator Dick inquiry concluded that fourteen European governments, including a large majority of western European ones, had colluded with U.S. intelligence in a “spider’s web” of secret flights and detention centers that violated international human rights law.2 The European Parliament, where attitudes were split along party and national lines, nonetheless took the bit between its teeth in appointing a special committee led by Italian MEP Claudio Fava. Both bodies protested the “obstruction and uncooperativeness of all governments implicated”, and of Dr. Solana, High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign & Security Policy.
The tacit accord among European officials in Brussels and national capitals to sweep the scandal under the rug blocked a full exposure of what happened and, more important, the thinking of all those in high office who were complicit.
Instead, European citizens were treated to high minded perorations that torture on European territory was anathema, and the granting of transit rights to expedite torture almost as heinous. They went hand in hand with outraged denunciation of torture at Guantanamo.
It is highly unlikely that any Western European government would itself engage in torture or follow a policy of rendition. Yet, because the Americans relieved them of the moral and, it seemed, the political responsibility, they were quite content to turn a blind eye. Raison d’état offered the necessary justification for acting as accessories before and after the fact. But, if raison d’état dictated that the promised information was so valuable as to set aside their reservations, why should it not provide compelling grounds to be honest in presenting the matter to their own populace? Most seriously, if some European leaders believe deep down that they may need a roughhouse America to fight their corner in an existential battle against the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism, should that grave judgment be kept their personal secret?
This state of mind – combining fearfulness with the need for reassuring American protection –is evident, too, in the more recent tolerance of electronic surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism. For only when the Snowden documents exposed the extraordinary scope of the surveillance did it arouse consternation and dismay.
Why this unseemly behavior? European leaders were acting out of fear. Fear of terrorist violence. Fear of confronting their own citizens with the moral dilemma. And fear of provoking the ire of the Bush and then Obama administrations. Washington’s ultimate blackmail weapon is the unspoken threat of leaving
Europeans, and the world they inhabit, to their own devices. European anxiety at the slightest hint of an American reversion to isolationism is as pervasive and profound as it is baseless. Yet, the dread evoked by the prospect that the United States’ power will be retracted lurks in the background of every transatlantic encounter.
Consequently, the Europeans’ own human rights credentials have become hostage to the moral vagaries of American behavior. As to benefits, there is no public evidence of any direct connection between blanket electronic sweeps or intelligence gathering at notorious detention centers and successes against terrorist groups, except possibly for the capture of Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan
Europe’s undue dependency on the United States points to the need for a self-conscious break from the past. To continue playing the roles of subaltern, appendix and acolyte to American might and magnetism can only stunt the former while feeding the hubris of the latter. Therein lies an unpromising future for all parties, including the world beyond the Atlantic axis. Sixty years ago, traumatized European leaders acted boldly and bravely to seek reliance on the
United States while moving to reorder their own affairs. Today, bravery in Europe’s enlightened interest is to begin curtailing that reliance.
Europe is inhibited by historical memory, by moral uncertainty and by political habit. In some critical respects, Europeans have freed themselves from the dead hand of the past. The postwar European community-building project was inspired to a large degree by the conviction that the continent’s collective history was the common enemy. It has succeeded admirably. Today’s politics has both benefited and been handicapped by that success. Gone are the overblown ambitions and lethal rivalries. European is at once post-modern and post-heroic.
Gone, too, are a sense of purpose and direction. Political will is another casualty.
The new Europe was made possible more by a process of political subtraction than political addition. That is to say, the domination of public affairs by prosaic concerns and tame ambitions has allowed Europeans to shed those parts of their make-up that would have impeded the process of integration.
National passion, ideological commitment, the impulse to draw lines of all kinds between “we” and “them” – they have dried up.
The civilian societies that have evolved, due in good part to this phenomenon, are also marked by a reduced sense of collective duty, aversion to danger, and an excessive introspection Members of these civilian societies have found it convenient to live under America’s protective umbrella and in America’s shadow – deferring to American judgments even when obviously flawed as they have been in the GWOT.
The need to make hard choices, to pronounce and to act are not felt as imperative when the United States, for better or worse, has been handling matters beyond Europe.
There is a touch of the Stockholm syndrome in this. The United States is so controlling of the environment in which Europeans live and think that accommodation to American preferences and wants looks to be a seeming condition for meeting their own needs. This is especially true with regard to security matters –terrorism above all. Discernible features of the Stockholm syndrome are undue empathy with the mindset of the dominating party, a heightened sensitivity to what may arouse its hostility, acute awareness of one’s own vulnerability, eager readiness to “understand” why it is behaving in a controlling manner, and borrowing its vocabulary as necessary to communicate with it. Convenience – intellectual, emotional, political – prevails.
By contrast, the constant maneuvering to gain policy or mental space is more stressful than current leadership can bear. Yes, independence is attenuated. However, it often is easier just to take the framework provided by the United States as given. Strenuous efforts to fabricate one’s own against the current of American will and fashion are avoided. That many outside the United States – other governments, political elites, and intellectuals – are going with the current makes doubly difficult the task of asserting autonomy. The conviction must be strong that the struggle for autonomy is important enough to make the exertion in an attempt that may well prove unavailing.
As in the case of Middle East policy noted above, the stakes are indeed high, but neither the psychology nor the political logic is favorable to the West Europeans tacking away from Washington. The determination, implicit or explicit, of European leaders to yield to American leadership is made easier by bending over backwards to credit American interpretations and assessments – and goodwill. Buying into the American frame of mind in this way, of course, reinforces all the inertial elements that perpetuate the Stockholm Syndrome.
Hence, Europe and America have become enablers of each other’s dysfunctional behavior. American impulsive activism, domineering attitude and supreme self-confidence induce Europeans to indulge their penchant for passive deference.
Their lack of self-assertion and ever-readiness to give Washington the benefit of the doubt, in turn, encourages American leaders to treat them as subordinates.
That attitude is manifest in regard to electronic spying. It will continue to dictate American actions short of a retrieval of self-esteem by European leaders. A Europe that does not respect itself will not be respected by Washington.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
1. The Washington Post November 12, 2005; Seymour Hersh The New Yorker, January 21 2005; Amnesty International “Below the Radar: Secret Flights to Torture and Disappearance” April 5, 2006.
2. Javier Solana “Testimony to the European Parliament Special Committee” May 3, 2006. Solana, a conscientious public official and a man of rectitude, was forced into this fatuous performance by circumstances beyond his control, unless he dared take the brave action of resigning. After years of frustration trying to give body to CFSP and ESDP, an exercise tantamount to trying to make bricks without straw, Solana understandably was not about to butt his head against the unusual consensus albeit one arrayed in favor of a collective policy of denial. This behavior earned him scathing criticism from the Fava committee – fair or not.
3. Marty’s inquiry relied to a large extent on flights logs recorded by the European Union’s air traffic agency, Eurocontrol. The final report was issued in June 2006 as: “Alleged Secret Detentions and Unlawful Inter-State transfers of Detainees Involving Council of Europe Member States” (Strasbourg: Council of Europe).
4. The buck passed to national chancelleries did not stop there. Incessant questioning in Berlin and London met with peevish responses. From the former came the one admission of an official being accessory to an illegal kidnapping. Otto Schily, Interior Minister in the preceding Schroeder Government, admitted that he had been aware of the seizure of German citizen Kalid al-Masri by the CIA after he had been lured to Skopje, Macedonia.
5. A guardedly optimistic assessment of Europe’s latent capacity to assume an active world role that compensates for, while alleviating the excesses of American power is offered by TzvetanTodorov Désordre Mondial: Reflexions d’un Européen(Paris: L.G.F., 2005). It is a development that most of the world would welcome.
6. I examine at length the psychological dimension of the Euro-American relationship in Toward A More Independent Europe EGMONT PAPER (Brussels: Royal Institute of International Relations, 2007) pp. 74