Opinion

Mark Leonard

The NSA and the weakness of American power

Mark Leonard
Oct 31, 2013 20:38 UTC

The NSA scandal over phone tapping in Europe will soon blow over, conventional wisdom says. Jack Shafer has argued that, although allied leaders such as Angela Merkel are upset, they will (and have to) get over it.

Don’t believe a word of it. The public outrage that the NSA has spawned could be more damaging to the transatlantic relationship than the Iraq war was a decade ago.

If it was all up to leaders, Shafer might be right. But governments — along with their intelligence services — are increasingly boxed in by public opinion. It’s not the spying or the lying that European citizens find more hurtful. It is the perception that U.S. agencies are as oblivious to the rights of allies as they are scrupulous at upholding the rights of their own citizens.

Seen from Europe, the NSA saga is another episode in the long-running story about the asymmetry of power across the Atlantic. A decade ago, the fight was about Iraq. In an influential essay,  author Robert Kagan saw Europe and America as archetypes for power and weakness. “Americans come from Mars and Europeans from Venus,” he said. But President Bush’s invasion of Iraq did not “shock and awe” the rest of the world into submission. It was, in fact, a graphic illustration of the limits of American power, accelerating the arrival of what Fareed Zakaria called a “Post-American World.”

Kagan was honest enough to admit, after the Iraq war, that Europeans helped rein in American behavior by challenging its legitimacy. “If the United States is suffering a crisis of legitimacy,” Kagan wrote, “it is in large part because Europe wants to regain some measure of control over Washington’s behavior.”

On Iran, Obama’s bigger challenge is with his allies

Mark Leonard
Oct 15, 2013 17:07 UTC

The things that probably keep Barack Obama up at night — terrorist networks, covert nuclear programs and chemical weapons — can often be countered with off-the-peg reasoning: drones, sanctions, inspections, or even the threat of intervention. Much more difficult is working out how to stop allies from destroying what he hopes will be the signature achievement of his second term: a historic opening to Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, Obama’s thorniest problems come not from his enemies, but from his friends.

With the possibility of bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Iran in Geneva, and supported by the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons in Syria, there is a tantalizing prospect that the Iranian regime could become a partner to the U.S., rather than a rival.

It is too early to know if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is able to deliver, but as diplomats gather in Geneva for U.N. talks, it is not hard to see why President Obama would invest so much hope in a deal. A former Democratic congressman who knows Obama well explained to me that, like healthcare on the domestic front, it would be a bold, game-changing initiative. And, like healthcare, an alliance with Iran eluded President Bill Clinton.

  •