Imagine that you’re reading an 80‘s spy thriller which has all of the necessary components to make it interesting — politics, secrets, espionage, and a man on the run through several countries. There isn’t a love scene, but for all of its action, you can get over that. If only you could see it in the movies!
There’s just one problem: Instead of working for a Western country to foil a Soviet plot, the main character has leaked classified US government information revealing massive abuses of citizens’ privacy as he flees first to China and then to Russia while receiving support from Cuba.
If that sounds backwards, it kind of is — but it’s also the real life story of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
As might be expected, the Snowden saga is accruing extensive, unpleasant attention to the Obama Administration on the international level. As President Obama travels around the world to get away from the scandals that bogged him down in Washington, he is being greeted by a not-too-happy crowd.
In Berlin, while delivering a poetic speech to a crowd of 4,500 people, protesters gathered to denounce the president, NSA spying, and the hunt for Snowden. In Senegal, he was greeted with similar controversy, although protesters were more motivated on the gay marriage issue. Finally, just yesterday, protesters in South Africa prevented the president from meeting with Nelson Mandela, who is hospitalized in critical condition, saying that they were “disappointed” in the president.
From Hong Kong to Moscow, protesters have been provided ammunition to greet the president as a dictator, not the supporter of human rights that he has claimed to be. Obama has in the past taken an active stance to decry human rights abuses in other countries, a position that now seems to be filled with hot air. Certainly, many of the aforementioned countries have their own civil liberties issues as bad, if not worse than the United States, but that’s not enough however to prevent the Snowden affair from obliterating the mirage of US foreign policy as driven by human rights.
If the American government doesn’t respect the rights of its own citizens, why should other countries take its platitudes seriously abroad?
Another recent development confirmed that Snowden has changed the balance on the international level. Snowden apparently still has a treasure trove of secrets which he has yet to release. In the first of an anticipated series, provided information to the German magazine Der Spiegel, he revelaed that the NSA had bugged EU offices in Washington and the UN, NATO headquarters in Brussels, and hacked into the EU’s main computer network.
Certainly espionage isn’t a new technique, but to be caught spying on a friend is not good public relations. Top ranking EU officials are outraged, with German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger calling them “methods used by enemies during the Cold War,” and Elmar Brok, Chairman of the EU foreign affairs committee, saying that the US had “completely lost balance — George Orwell is nothing by comparison.”
Meanwhile, Wikileaks has offered to pay for a chartered flight to Iceland for Snowden, a cost of $240,000 that they are willing and able to bear since the organization returned to the spotlight.
With the worldwide distrust of the US government, a reshaping of American foreign relationships will have to happen. Certainly, this doesn’t change the fact that neither China, Russia, Cuba, and Ecuador have good human rights records, and it’s more than likely that the governments of EU countries spied on the US as well. However, tensions have been inflamed, it’s unlikely the US-EU relationship can go back to the way it was. With the tapping of the NATO building, the NSA also dragged that organization into the debacle. Cooperation between members on conflicts in the short run is unlikely. An allied intervention in Syria now looks impossible. American pressure for allies to keep up sanctions on Iran looks to fall apart.
The US government will have to re-make its image if it wants to continue to build allies around the world. Ecuadorean President Correa put it well when he attacked the US for starting wars, keeping Guantanamo Bay opne, and continuing drone strikes that kill innocent civilians.
We need to return to a non-interventionist foreign policy and restore basic civil liberties of privacy and due process both to restore our international image — and simply because it is right.Published in