This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.
America’s allies are scandalized to learn that the NSA has been spying not only on their citizens but – going way over the line – their leaders. Obama, who once presented himself as the alternative to Bush’s with-us-or-against-us approach, makes no apologies. He doesn’t deny the spying, but justifies it: the allies should see the spying as in their best interest. America only serves good and can do no wrong.
Germany in particular is insulted. It regards itself as not just any old ally, but a good influence on the superpower and for that reason a solid member of the world community that deserves America’s respect as an equal partner. With Edward Snowden’s disclosure that the NSA tapped Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, Germany feels a betrayal of trust. Merkel expresses her willingness to continue the friendship, but insists on an apology.
This whole ruckus resembles nothing so much as a teen drama. But it shines a light on the nature of the relationship between the US, its allies and the whole world of states.
America’s lofty point of view
Obama does not claim that countries like Germany have benefited from the NSA program because it has stopped terrorism on German soil. Rather, it is stopping terrorism against America and this is supposed to be its advantage to Germany. Obama doesn’t say that the NSA is protecting only America, but that the war against terrorism is a cause that unifies all states because terrorism is a danger for all civilized countries. It is not only about America and not the rest, but every state in the world. America’s interest is the world’s interest.
Obama does not say that America does whatever it wants and the rest of the world has to put up with it. He underlines their common cause and demands recognition for what the US is doing. When the allies protest that the spying violates their sovereignty under international law, he responds by saying that it is done precisely to uphold the principle of sovereignty as laid down in international law. He doesn’t say international law is a waste of time and the US is getting rid of it, but that the US is pursuing terrorists and terrorists don’t make any distinctions between international boundaries, so the US has to go after them wherever they are.
Obama uses the occasion of the outcry from the allies to clarify the conditional nature of their sovereignty: the US defense of the world with this system of worldwide surveillance is the prerequisite for their sovereignty. The American president and legal scholar notes that America can’t breach the sovereignty of other nations because it defines their sovereignty with its superior power.
Actually, this is a contradiction to the meaning of sovereignty: sole authority over one’s own domain. This is the principle of the UN and the world order that America created after WW2. The world is no longer made up of subjugated colonies headed by viceroys, but of sovereign nations that rule their own territories and peoples. At same time, this should work out for America’s benefit. They should use their sovereign power in a way that serves America – and this is never guaranteed by sovereignty. So America constantly monitors other countries to make sure they are using their power in ways that serve America’s interests.
This ambitious claim on the world has to be taken seriously because the US has established itself with its force as the power that supervises the world order. The security of this world order is the framework that all other countries must fit into. The reverse side of this is that those states whose sovereignty does not derive from American permission are treated as threats; e.g. China, Russia, Syria, etc etc.
Those countries whose sovereignty has been conceded by America are always faced with the question of how far their sovereignty extends. In financial matters, in day to day legal matters, they may exercise power internally; less so externally. The current debate raging in Europe about the NSA takes the form of: what are the limits that the USA imposes on our national sovereignty and how much room do we have to push back?
When the US says that it is taking charge of the security of the world order because nobody else can do it, this is also a challenge to any potential competitor: we have to do it; we insist that it’s us and not you. Obama’s announcement that the sovereignty of all other countries depends on America’s global security services is also a warning: America intends to keep it this way.
Defining Snowden as a traitor
The US does not mean this merely rhetorically, but puts it into practice. This was demonstrated to the world when the US declared an international manhunt for the whistleblower Edward Snowden. He was said to have compromised America’s security, so all other countries had to treat him as a criminal too. A threat to America is a threat to them – despite the fact that he revealed to them that they were being spied on by their great ally!
The corresponding diplomatic interventions ranged from the demand that Snowden be refused refuge to the forced landing of Bolivian President Morales’s plane under suspicion that Snowden was on it – an action obediently carried out by the European allies. When Hong Kong and Russia followed their own laws and international law according to their treaty obligations, the US ordered them to act in their own countries as surrogates of the FBI and hand Snowden over to the US. It did not say: we have a case against this guy and you must act according to the treaties we have negotiated. Rather: America’s security comes first.
This shows the real relation between America’s security needs and the sovereignty of other nations. The position that every modern state insists on, inwardly and outwardly, that this is its society and that is the other’s, simply does not apply. The whole NSA intelligence gathering on every citizen in the world demonstrates that the US does not keep to this distinction – it treats other nations’ citizens as if they were directly subordinated to the US in same way its own citizens are.
Why does America have so many enemies?
The world’s seven billion people are the sands that the NSA sifts through to find the grains defined by America’s security criteria. In compiling this data, the US takes no regard for the wishes of other political powers. It sees no reason why it should limit its spying to its own citizens. On the contrary: it has plenty of reasons why everyone in the world needs to be scanned by the US as well.
The state considers the possibility of opposition, independent of whether it exists or not. The suspicion derives from the state defining its security in such a way that the possibility of opposition has to be addressed even before any opposition manifests itself. The state wants to collect all the information available so that it can suppress any opposition if and when it pops up. The state’s interest in collecting information and surveillance is prior to any opposition. It wants to be able to control anything that might happen.
America says that it has constructed this global system of surveillance because there are people out there who want to damage it. But why is Obama so sure that Al Qaeda is in America? It’s not just that enemies of the US happen to exist and the US needs to find them. There’s an obvious difference between the US and, say, Finland in this regard: the US is out in the world shaking it up and damaging all sorts of interests. It knows from the start that it is going to have opponents. America is engaged all over the world, damaging other national ideas and realities, making enemies.
So America targets all other state powers as a potential den of terrorists and security offenders of all kinds. This standpoint parallels America’s drone war: we will fight our enemies everywhere, no matter in which state.
The shark tank of diplomacy
Secretary of State Kerry now acknowledges that the NSA overstepped diplomatic bounds. He does not question the usefulness or the legitimacy of it; he just says that, in light of the diplomatic fallout with Germany, maybe we need to rethink the way we do it. Maybe a cost-benefit analysis is needed when we get a bit reckless.
This is not a fundamental reckoning. The NSA is said to have gone “too far”; the problem is not with what it does. A world-wide network to fight terror is necessary from the standpoint of being the world’s uncontested superpower. So Kerry repeats: even and especially America’s allies should understand its broad and far-reaching need to supervise the entire world. And they should support this noble mission.
According to German politicians, the NSA wire on Merkel’s phone brings the level of trust between the two countries to its lowest point since the Iraq war. They threaten to suspend negotiations on trade agreements and talk about meeting with Snowden to get back at America; they also announce that they aren’t likely to do this, but insist that they could in principle. They demand that, at the very least, the US give them a tour of the roof of its embassy in Berlin. America owes them some sign of respect!
American officials points out that German intelligence has been cooperating with the NSA this whole time and that the Germans were aware of it; maybe they didn’t know America was spying on Merkel, but they knew the nature of the spying. Their comments all have the tone of: oh come on!
Its funny: both Germany and the US are aware that they spy on each other. They recognize the need to find out what other countries, even their closest allies, are up to in questions of war and trade. They know that all nations have good reasons to be suspicious towards each other. But when it comes out that Merkel’s phone was tapped by the NSA, mistrust is suddenly discovered.
The real scandal is that the truth about the partnership is now in the open: Germany is clearly the subordinate partner. The US sees Germany as a partner, but not one on an equal footing. Germany itself makes the hierarchy of states clear when it barely complains that the NSA has also targeted France and Brazil. Its not such a big deal if other states, even ones in the European union, are spied on by the NSA, but if it happens to Germany’s Chancellor – that’s the red line! On the other hand, the UK is treated differently; it isn’t spied on, but is part of an open agreement with the US on intelligence. That both tells Germany where it stands and sets the bar to be reached.
There’s a reason these powerful states act like whiney teenagers with their demands for respect. In this game of states spiting each other, the cultivation of trust and the insistence on sovereignty are necessary because they are all in competition with each other. They are partners and rivals at the same time. Diplomatic relations always start with signs of respect for the other’s sovereignty, but what is respected and what that sovereignty is over are constantly called into question and need to be constantly re-established. They insist on categories like trust and mutual recognition to downplay their fundamental antagonisms and the degree to which their civilized relations are based on force. But these hypocritical good manners are only required because the world of states is a shark tank, even among allies.
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.