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The NSA's Spying On American Allies Is Just Business As Usual

But that doesn't mean anyone's going to let them get away with it.

by Joseph Cox
29 October 2013, 4:00pm

Angela Merkel trying to hide from American spy rays behind some 3D glasses (Photo via

Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA have been monitoring the calls of dozens of world leaders hasn't gone down particularly well with any of those world leaders. In fact, after suspecting that the US might have been snooping on her communications, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang up Obama herself to demand some answers. A couple of days later, it emerged that her phone has potentially been monitored for more than a decade with American technology ostensibly designed to tackle terrorism.

In response to the latest revelations to be brought to light by Edward Snowden's leaks, Germany and Brazil last week proposed that a UN resolution be drawn up to put a cap on America's "indiscriminate" and "extra-territorial" surveillance. Twenty-one other countries – including US allies, Mexico and France – have now joined those talks. Of course, there's every chance that discussions about the issue will also find their way into an NSA analyst's earpiece at some point, considering an earlier Snowden leak showed that the US have bugged the UN headquarters in the past.  

With this small entourage of international governments teaming up against America's invasive surveillance tactics, I called Carl Meacham – director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas Program – to find out what all this means for relations between the US and their critics.

Carl was quick to note that surveillance isn't exactly a new phenomenon: "Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies," he said, "and that's been happening for years." However, he did stress that “the scope and magnitude of these [spying] initiatives is shocking to some folks […] On the one hand you have the Obama administration sending a clear sign of its willingness to partner with Latin America, to break with the past and regard these countries as equals. But on the other: 'We're also watching you.'"

The NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland (Photo via)

This clearly raises issues about trust between the two continents, which – after positive developments following US diplomatic efforts in recent years – now seems to be laying in tatters. "Snowden has placed the United States in a hole, and the United States will get out of it, but what is going to be left is a situation where the world will not see the US with any illusions any more," said Meacham. "They will see the US in a very realistic way – the lengths we're willing to go to [for our own interests] are exemplified in what these revelations are demonstrating."

A disgruntled former defence official with Nato affiliations told the Cable that, "The short-term costs in credibility and trust are enormous," which is an assertion Meacham expanded on with some slightly more tangible potential consequences. "The willingness these countries will have to work for the US might change," he speculated, before suggesting that other countries will no longer act as political punching bags: "The US will be judged the same way that it has judged other countries. I think that's a new context for the US and the way that it operates around the world."

However, not everyone shares Meacham's opinion. "I believe that the Snowden affair has been used on purpose to create turbulence in the world affairs, but the impact on inter-state relations has been so far relatively minor," Niculescu George from the European Geopolitical Forum told me over email. "Sure, the whole story is frustrating for the US allies who were directly affected by it, and should be embarrassing for the Americans themselves. However, I doubt it will dramatically change the structure of global power, although one may expect some measures of response from the affected allies, and perhaps from their best friends. Perhaps moderate setbacks in the outcomes US diplomacy efforts could also be foreseen."

George compared the effect of Snowden's leaks to that of WikiLeaks in its prime: "They might have significantly damaged the reputation of the US in the global arena," he said, "but they were far from changing the global balance of power, as some might have been hoping. That’s the case since the power in international relations is determined mostly in terms that it would be hard to manipulate through PR strategies, as sophisticated and expensive as they might be."

So while Meacham might have a point, it's perhaps unlikely that there will be such a dramatic power shift as the one he's suggested. That said, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's outburst at the UN general assembly, where she called the NSA's spying – among other things – a "breach of international law" could be a breakthrough in itself. While the public at large seem to understand that the US has long been the world's playground bully – constantly employing double standards and bog-washing swathes of the Middle East with carpet bomb campaigns – it's rarely acknowledged by politicians, especially those from allied countries.

And Rousseff has become even more antagonistic recently, snubbing a White House state dinner invitation after learning that the US had secretly spied on her government. "There has been a direct effect already with Dilma Rousseff rejecting President Obama's invitation for a state dinner," said Meacham. "But it's more complicated with Mexico, because we have these closer, bureaucratic links – such as NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] – that force our two governments [of the US and Mexico] to be in constant contact."

Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff speaking at the UN in 2012 (Photo via)

If this relationship were to fall apart, it would, of course, be bad news for both sides. "It's an interdependent relationship," Meacham explained, "not only commercially, but also as it relates to security." Neither side can really afford to piss off the other too drastically, it seems.

With all these allegations flying around, it is important to remember that there is some air of complicity between the intelligence agencies of the indignant countries and the American NSA. "Germans benefit from American intelligence on terrorism – the Brazilians, too," Carl noted. "The more and more they participate in global issues and are regarded as a friend of the United States, [the more they] will benefit from the same kind of information."

However, the impact that these revelations are going to have on the perception of the US cannot be over-emphasised. For decades, anti-US ideologies – like those promoted by Cuba or Soviet Russia – have attempted to tarnish America's image in the hope that the superpower may eventually crumble and a new world order manifest. But what those countries took years unsuccessfully trying to do (in terms of image tarnishing, at least) has been achieved by Snowden – who is definitely not anti-American, by the way – "in the course of these last few months", as Meacham pointed out.

There are, as he then added, "a lot of positive things" about the US. And that seems justified – Shakeshack in Covent Garden always has masive queues and any kind of foreign aid generally goes down pretty well – but the US also must be held to account for its actions, and it has a hell of a lot of accounting to do.

When I asked Meacham what America's motive for the spying might be – financial, political or just to preserve their power – Carl answered, "It's all of those things." This obviously conflicts with what has become the mantra for those backing the NSA's surveillance programme – that it's "for national security".

Of course, while that reasoning is transparently not true, at least it's vaguely reasonable. What is definitely not reasonable, however, is the claim by Republican Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers that the surveillance is an effort to halt the rise of fascism in Europe. Quoted in the Guardian, Rogers said, "Look what happened in the 1930s – the rise of fascism, the rise of communism, the rise of imperialism. We didn't see any of it. And it resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Remember: sometimes, our friends have relationships with our adversaries."

The possibility of a debate like this is presumably exactly what motivated Snowden to leak the NSA documents in the first place – to spur world leaders into combating American arrogance and deception. It's just a shame that it only came to a head when world leaders realised it was directly affecting them, rather than just their citizens.

Follow Jospeh on Twitter: @josephfcox

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