The Snowden Effect

MADRID – The continued leaking of classified information by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has provoked heated debate about privacy and international law, which, unfortunately, has overshadowed the geostrategic dimension of his actions. In fact, Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs, and his own ongoing struggle to avoid extradition, reveal much about President Barack Obama’s conception of US foreign relations.

More than any other incoming American president in recent memory, Obama raised expectations worldwide. Yet he has proved to be mainly, if not solely, interested in domestic issues, resulting in a foreign policy of reaction. The Snowden affair highlights three elements of this: US-Russia relations, US influence in South America, and US relations with Europe.

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The Kremlin’s handling of the affair is indicative of the tense state of US-Russia relations. In the aftermath of the bilateral relationship’s ill-fated “reset,” Russia has been eager to maintain its global position as a foil to the US, causing many people on both sides to revert to a Cold War mentality. By falling into this trap, the US has provided President Vladimir Putin with endless fodder to score political points and solidify his domestic position.

Putin regards anti-Americanism as an effective tool for short-circuiting domestic discontent. Developments like the US Congress’s enactment of the Magnitsky Act, portrayed in Russia as an American provocation, have allowed the Kremlin to rally support at home with retaliatory measures such as a ban on foreign adoptions, while providing cover for a crackdown on domestic opponents.

Following the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011, which the Kremlin regarded as another example of Western overreach, Russia has been more aggressive in asserting itself internationally, mainly in opposition to the US. This is most obvious in Russia’s dogged support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. And Russia’s refusal to hand over Snowden, under the pretext of strict adherence to the law, has allowed Putin to poke Obama in the eye once again – this time while posing as a defender of legality and human rights.

This coup de théȃtre was magnified by Putin’s cynical claim that Russia would allow Snowden to stay only if he stopped leaking information “aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners.” Presumably, Putin would not object to the infliction of such damage behind closed doors, during a debriefing with the Russian security services.

Moreover, the Snowden affair reinforces the perception that the US is losing its sway in South America. With few notable exceptions, such as US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon, US diplomacy has lacked a strategic vision for Latin America. Barack Obama’s 2008 election created high expectations in this region, too; but his administration’s approach has been reserved, at best, and often obtuse.

While China’s influence in Latin America has soared, the US has remained aloof. Obama’s visit in May was presented as an effort to reinvigorate relations in the context of the rise of the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, the chickens of Obama’s first term have already come home to roost.

For example, the US is far and away Ecuador’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than a third of its foreign trade. Yet, facing the possibility that Ecuador might grant Snowden asylum, the US felt the need to scramble, with Vice President Joe Biden personally pleading America’s case to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, even after Obama announced that he would not engage in “wheeling and dealing” over the extradition.

The threat by US officials to cut off aid to Ecuador, which would amount to a measly $12 million in 2014, further evinces a clumsy approach. America’s traditional sources of influence – its soft power, regional alliances, and financial leverage – appear to be running dry. The message to the world is clear: the US is not the regional power that it should be.

Finally, turning to Europe, Obama’s flippant attitude concerning alleged US surveillance of the European Union and its member states shows that American exceptionalism is alive and well. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of European concerns, he shrugged them off as a frivolity: “[I] guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders.”

The US certainly has an interest in gaining deeper analytical insight into its European allies’ decision-making than can be gained by simply calling, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Accepting that spying is realistically part of the US toolkit, we Europeans expect it to be conducted responsibly. By dismissing European concerns about how such surveillance is carried out, Obama has demonstrated one of America’s worst habits – that of patronizing Europe.

In fact, Europeans have raised serious questions about US intelligence practices. These range from the lack of professionalism implied by allowing contractors to conduct such sensitive work to America’s hands-off approach toward certain allies, like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, while relegating many of its other allies – including most of the European Union – to surveillance-worthy status.

The bitter irony is that, at this suddenly inauspicious moment, Europe and the US are launching their most significant joint project since the creation of NATO – a transatlantic free-trade agreement. For the sake of its success, is it really too much to ask of the US that it play its part internationally with a bit more skill and professionalism, and that it treat its partners with respect?