The NSA and the weakness of American power

October 31, 2013

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.”

The Franco-German response to the hegemony of the NSA has echoes of their response to the “Global War on Terror.” European citizens were not shocked that the NSA spies, but they were surprised by the power and reach of American intelligence.

When I interviewed Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a Spanish foreign policy expert, he compared the NSA’s approach to data to the Library of Congress’ approach to books. When he asked a librarian about the library’s acquisitions policy, he learned that it didn’t have one. “We just buy everything,” the librarian told him. He compares this approach to the NSA probing the emails of all European citizens and justifying the purpose afterward.

One of the few unwritten laws in international politics is when a country reaches a level of power that is out of control, other countries will come together and balance it. Now two European institutions — the unelected European Commission and the unloved European Parliament — have the power and the incentive to try to take on the region’s closest ally.

The most obvious possibility for this is cooperation on counter-terrorism. Last week the European Parliament voted to suspend the SWIFT agreement, which governs the transfer of some bank data from the EU to anti-terror authorities in the United States. Although the U.S. does not always take Europe seriously as a military power, it does care about cooperation on data-sharing and the regulations that govern it — including bank data. This is one reason why the outgoing American ambassador to the EU, William Kennard, was the former chairman of the FCC.

As the latest revelations show, Europe’s intelligence agencies have often been willing co-conspirators with their counterparts across the Atlantic, but they will now be under much stronger public pressure not to comply.

There could be commercial implications to the NSA’s behavior. The European Commission is the most powerful regulatory body in the world, and it has the strength to impose its will on America’s corporate titans. In 2004, EU regulators hit Microsoft with a record fine of $613 million for violating European Union antitrust laws. Five years later they used the same tactics to force Microsoft to unbundle its Internet Explorer from Windows.

Sebastian Dullien, a German economist, argues that some people might call on the European Commission to use these sorts of tactics against American tech companies. “If they really wanted to hurt the United States, they could pass a law which said that any company that gives personal information on European citizens to foreign intelligence agencies would have to pay a fine of one million dollars per instance,” says Dullien. “If that happened, it might force many of the tech giants to shutter their operations in Europe.”

The European Commission, together with the European Space Agency, successfully funded the $5 billion Galileo project to develop a European answer to GPS. In the wake of the NSA scandal, there are calls for the EU to use similar tactics to develop safe cloud servers for Europe. Such a move could lead to a balkanization — or at least a de-Americanization — of the Internet.

Third, there will be consequences for the much vaunted Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which some have argued would usher in a “New Atlantic Century.” Both sides have called for a “deep” and “comprehensive” agreement to create jobs and forge a “free, open and rules-based world.” But whatever deal that European and American negotiators agree on will have to be ratified by Congress and the European Parliament. The NSA scandal will probably not scupper a deal, but it will make it more difficult to agree a comprehensive one.

Fears about data privacy will make it more difficult to have mutual recognition of regulations on digital services. The same is true of government procurement. There will be resistance to give American companies access to European government programs if they leave the back door open for American intelligence agencies. Rather than become the economic foundation for a new Atlantic century, the deal that emerges could look more like a piece of Swiss cheese — so riddled with opt-outs and exemptions that it has little effect.

The real toxicity of the NSA revelations is that they replace a sense of shared values with deep public mistrust on both sides of the Atlantic. As Torreblanca argues: “Americans do not seem to realize that powers of surveillance that are used not just for counter-terrorism but also for commercial advantage could put them in the same category as China.”

The scars of the Iraq war live on long after the protagonists of that episode have moved on, as we saw in the debates about intervention in Syria. But the NSA scandals have the potential to leave an even deeper impression on an already weaker transatlantic alliance. The intelligence relationships that did so much to unite allies in the Cold War now threaten to blow up their relations during a time of peace.

PHOTO: General Keith Alexander (2nd L), director of the National Security Agency (NSA) testifies at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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Well written op-ed piece… I hope the Europeans don’t cave…

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive


Not. It was boring and rambling excuse to make a call for a United States of Europe by someone with an axe to grind and no technological creds to back up his weak arguments.

“European Commission is the most powerful regulatory body in the world”

Yup. Must be. Just look what they’ve accomplished in wrecking the competitiveness of the EU economy.

“there are calls for the EU to develop safe cloud servers for Europe”

That horse is already out of the barn. Stuxnet already proved there ain’t gonna be no safe cloud servers, but think-tank-boy hasn’t got his little wonky Expertopian head wrapped around the underlying complexities of that one yet.

“The real toxicity of the NSA revelations is that they replace a sense of shared values with deep public mistrust on both sides of the Atlantic…”

What “sense” of “shared values” is this clown talking about?

The “sense” that, in the Opinion Of Europe, Barack Hussein Obama was the greatest thing since legalized abortion and the concomitant “sense” of happy relief that gave a US press corps that was all too ready to anoint a totally incompetent moron the “Leader Of The Free World?

The “sense” that the EU, through the UN, could make a call for open warfare in Iraq and then leave the US hanging out to dry when the WAR wasn’t “pretty enough” for their tender European sensibilities?

The “sense” that if there is ever a need for action by the nation states of the EU, in their own spheres, that they WILL ALWAYS look for the US to provide the muscle?

Well written op-ed piece my rump.

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

The incredible damage done by the NSA is difficult to overestimate. The misuse of covert police activities in the USA (“Secret Police”, as such dark organizations have always been called) has alienated freedom loving people everywhere on the planet, including at home.

Anyone at all who trusts technology, whether hardware or software, from companies that have any offices or financial arrangements subject to US court orders is a fool or a fascist. They have announced that the US Government does not respect anyone’s rights or dignity, especially its own citizens. And that they, and their supporters, compete with the hated “big liars” of the past century.

The USA will dwindle as a supplier of anything other than people. Thanks guys! You really defended your people. Good job.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Outstanding piece Mark. So unfortunate that this perspective is not being broadly presented to the American public, who will wake up one day to a new world that is perhaps significantly more anti-American, with ramifications we can hardly begin to understand at the moment. Jack Shafer needs to read and embrace this reality. The power resides with the people, their leaders and governments soon follow.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Nah, Public Opinion resides with the people. Power remains in the hands of a few.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

“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.”


There is no such perception.

Posted by Kukiniloa | Report as abusive

Thank you Edward Snowden!!!

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

The NSA fiasco merely reinforces what’s become common currency: Nobody trusts either the intentions or the wisdom of the hacks in Washington.

The recent revolt against their proposed war in Syria on behalf of Taliban-like fundamentalist Sunni jihadists and Al-Qaeda exemplifies the depths of the mistrust.

On that last, American pols couldn’t get the citizenry to do that most American of things: Wave the flag for yet another pointless (and expensive) war.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

America would be a better country if Americans were to stay home and mind their own business. I don’t hold much hope for that ever happening however. Repeal the USA Patriot Act and disband the NSA and the CIA. The number of terrorist acts around the world would drop precipitately, if only we stayed at home and minded our own business.

Posted by PeterBarlow | Report as abusive

And may I also say thank you, Edward Snowden, and may God be with you and watch over you. You are a patriotic American.

Posted by PeterBarlow | Report as abusive

No damage was done . Everybody knew spying was going in ! Or have we forgotten the terrorists attacks in the United States , Madrid , London and now in Nigeria and Kenya . Or the recent arrests in London of four prepared to kill ? Very pleased we have NSA and MI6 to protect us .

Posted by Burn1938 | Report as abusive

>.. could put them in the same category as China.
Illegal search and seizure, currency manipulation to the tune of 80 billion per month, money taken from the citizen to benefit the wealthy bankers, insider trading everywhere you turn over a rock, whistle blowers persecuted by the govt, no rule of law for the privileged. No, not China – the USA. Dream on about our country America – because it’s headlong dive into the world’s toilet is picking up steam.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

Interesting read – though one critical error. The NSA was uncovered or “caught”. What we read online is mostly from the political/politicians’ sphere.

Does the average reader here believe that the USA is the only country capable and the only country currently executing intelligence gathering of this depth and breadth? We are not. That is extremely naive thinking or perhaps even overly large egos at work.

There are some very quiet allies and not so allied countries not in this discussion right now.

Posted by bbazz | Report as abusive

@hampsterherder – you wrote “The “sense” that the EU, through the UN, could make a call for open warfare in Iraq and then leave the US hanging out to dry when the WAR wasn’t “pretty enough” for their tender European sensibilities?”

Read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and it was more than a matter of tender European sensibilities that “the war wasn’t pretty”. The spying says the US is on the global make and is even paranoid now “that nobody likes it” and it wants to make sure there aren’t plots against it because it knows its own life was a plot against them and it is terrified of reprisals. Like some crazy emperor that made criminal mistakes that caused a period of warfare causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement and confusion in the lives of millions more and has done damage to its economy and its prestige. And it was Blair and Bush who made the loudest calls for open warfare and dreamed up the idea of the “coalition of the willing” with more than a hint that the willing would be rewarded with privileged access to the spoils.

In other words, the US was revealed as a criminal bent on world domination and now what it’s really afraid of noticing is that everyone else on the planet had the courage to fight “true evil” but started to smell a con game. They didn’t call them NeoCons for nothing.

The US has to find excuses, and try to sell them to a gullible population for a very long time, why it did what it did in Iraq and Afghanistan and it isn’t even finished with the experience of Afghanistan. That might give it even more reason to feel bad about the last ten years and even more reasons to find out through spying what its competition and critics might be saying about it that is not being allowed to appear in public media. After all, they know there is what appears in print and what is said behind closed doors. The “willing” may not like the prospect they were fooled again and are trying to save they embarrassment. People tend to want governments to be almost godlike in omniscience and reliability and even misguided participation can give governments a lot of domestic difficulty because they are never very securely loved by their own populations. .

I am half way through that book and have even checked the index and not once does the author mention al Qaeda. The book was published in 2006 but, as I recall, al Qaeda was blamed for the insurgency very early on and it has become a nearly automatic boogeyman. The author blames the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense for the real problems and it is sounding like al Qaeda was their invention.

It’s ironic. If al Qaeda was an invention or an exaggeration it is backfiring because the Syrian opposition may be infected with it and that may be why the NSA is wondering just how that happened? Some clever people figured out how to fight BS with BS.

Oh what a tangled wed they weave now that everyone knows how to deceive!

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

America forgot what made it strong and prosperous.

America rose from the fight against tyranny and suppression
founding her nation on freedom and citizen rights.

You don’t honor your founding fathers who paid with blood for your freedom and wealth…

instead you rape their values and their constitution and dishonor them by violating the rules and laws they wisely established – above all the rule of law.
Nobody will be free in a country where some organisation spies on everybody without being responsible to anybody or anything. Everybody will be susceptible to extortion.
Secret prisons…
Deprivation of life and liberty without due process of law…
Those are all means of tyranny…not of freedom and righteousness.

What is more dangerous!? Some arab lunatics with explosive belts killing 70 people a year…. or the moral basis of your nation, prosperity and power crumbling to pieces…!?

Posted by DonnyBurger | Report as abusive

Awesome comment @paintcan!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Gee thanks tmc (the movie channel?)- at page 197, in the last paragraph, the author mentions interrogations of al Qaeda in AFGHANISTAN but it never made the index.

Something hasn’t smelled right for the last ten years and anyone who thinks an entire nation and the rest of the world has lost the use of that faculty should really think again. Remember the series “I Claudius” and that reference in the the episodes dealing with the reign of terror of Siganus and the need for a good nose?

He has even mentioned the use of the Roman proconsul model regarding Bremmer’s early role. I remember hearing that too. They should never touch the old Romans without also looking at the end of their world. They may have eaten their neighborhood for centuries but in the end the neighborhood ate them down to their bare bones. And the digestive process made the Europeans.

There was little argument for the need to deal with Afghanistan and the Europeans were wiling then. They became far less willing with Iraq because that was the bridge too far and too dubious.

The European schools probably teach more ancient and modern history, reflecting a very different experience, I believe, or they used to, than our schools ever get and I don’t think the Europeans are raised on nearly the same romantic notions we still entertain regarding powers that seek global domination.

I can never visit Europe without feeling more than a bit of the naif.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive