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The NSA's Spying on America's Allies Is Just Business as Usual

As America's government is discovering, when you get caught spying on your closest allies and have to have your dirty laundry aired in public it's very, very humiliating. Will the latest NSA revelations have lasting effects?

by Joseph Cox
Oct 30 2013, 6:00pm

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

Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA has 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, last week 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 by the supposedly friendly American government.

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 countries—including US allies Mexico and France—are now discussing such a resoluatoin. Ironically, there's every chance that these talks about the issue will find their way into an NSA analyst's earpiece at some point, since an earlier Snowden leak alleged that the US has bugged the UN headquarters in the past.

This type of surveillance isn't exactly a new phenomenon, according to Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies," he told me. "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. You may recognize it because this is the photo that everyone uses in every article about the NSA; it's the only image of the place in public domain. (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 US official with NATO affiliations told Foreign Policy that "the short-term costs in credibility and trust are enormous," an assertion Meacham agreed with. "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."

Not everyone shares Meacham's opinion. "I believe that the Snowden affair has been used on purpose to create turbulence in world affairs, but the impact on inter-state relations has been so far relatively minor," Niculescu George of 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 the cables Bradley Manning gave to WikiLeaks. "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."

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 many people around the world see the US as the world's playground bully, constantly employing double standards about "rogue nations" while it bombs whoever it wants, that's an attitude rarely articulated by politicians 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 to be in constant contact."

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

With all these allegations flying around, it is important to remember that there is some air of complicity between the intelligence agencies of the suddenly indignant countries and the NSA. "Germans benefit from American intelligence on terrorism—the Brazilians too," Meacham 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."

Worldwide, the impact that these revelations are going to have on the perception of the US cannot be over-emphasized. For decades, anti-US ideologies, from the Soviets to communist China to radical Islamists to North Korea to Hugo Chavez, have attempted to tarnish America's image in the hope that the superpower may eventually crumble and leave a void for a new world order to fill. But what those countries tried for years to acheive—a permanent tarnishing of the US's reputation—has been accomplished thanks to Snowden "in the course of these last few months," as Meacham pointed out. (Which is not to say that Snowden is in any way anti-American or allied with anti-American countries.) 

America could have all kinds of reasons to spy on the leaders of allied countries—just as a lot of countries have reason to spy on the America in return—but none of them are particularly noble, and trying to explain them publicly is simply embarrassing. Republican Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, even hinted that Hitler wouldn't have become so powerful if the US had been keeping a closer watch on Europe. As 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 force American officials to explain the practices of their country's wide-ranging intelligence operations. The only question is whether there will be lasting real-world consequences to these latest revelations.

Follow Jospeh on Twitter: @josephfcox

More stories about the NSA and surveillance:

A Brief History of the US Government Spying on Its Citizens

Chris Soghoian on NSA Leaks and the Paradox of Privacy

Hiding Your Calls and Texts from Big Brother