The past weeks’ revelations about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s broad electronic surveillance program, follow a grand American tradition of major disclosures that undermine the high standards to which the United States holds itself — and the world. In this case: How can the U.S. tell other countries to stop using the Internet to pursue their aims at the expense of others when it has been systematically spying on foreigners for years?
This contradiction is nothing new in American foreign policy: it’s the flip side of American exceptionalism. The United States is so eager to cast itself as a pinnacle of various behaviors and values that when it inevitably falls short, it leads to awkward contradictions. That’s a shame, because the United States actually does have substantive differences from many other countries on civil liberties, human rights and democracy — it’s just that its stance ensures any slipups and embarrassments overshadow everything else.
Look no further than last weekend, when the NSA disclosures spoiled the Obama administration’s plans to corner China on its own cyber practices. Instead, publications like the Guardian were running headlines like “U.S.-China summit ends with accord on all but cyberespionage.”
And yet there are real differences between China and the U.S. on cyberwarfare. It’s true both countries attack one another. By some accounts, more than 90 percent of cyberespionage in the U.S. originates in China. In April, NSA chief Keith Alexander told Congress that 40 new CYBERCOM teams are being assembled — 13 of them will focus on offensive operations. But America’s offense comes from its military and surveillance arm and is predominantly directed towards China’s.
On the other hand, the evidence suggests that a significant percentage of China’s attacks are driven by commercial aims. China’s state capitalist model gives the government broader control over the private sector, and intertwines these state-owned enterprises’ success with that of the government itself. Chinese corporations narrow the performance gap between themselves and foreign competitors by targeting trade secrets and intellectual property. But it’s in China’s interests to blur the distinction between its practices and the U.S.’s. Why should China listen to American grievances about China’s IP theft when these practices work perfectly well — and Beijing can categorize America’s cyber practices as a step too far, also?