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.”

The Europeanization of America

Mark Leonard
Feb 25, 2013 20:52 UTC

For her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia. For his first trip, John Kerry chose Europe. His choice is partly a result of his strong connections across the Atlantic and partly a move against the frustrations U.S. diplomats have faced in places like Beijing. Kerry’s choice also speaks to a remarkable narrowing of the Atlantic, which culminated in Obama’s championing of a transatlantic free-trade agreement in his State of the Union address this month.

Only 10 years ago, Europe and the U.S. were meant to be so different that not only did they have different views, but they viewed each other as if from different planets. Politically and militarily, the author Robert Kagan claimed, Americans were from Mars and Europeans from Venus. American commentators used to routinely denounce European economies for being closed, backward-looking and missing the wave of the future. Germany was still seen as the sick man of Europe, and it was the subject of ridicule for the way it was wedded to an industrial economy in a post-industrial age. What a difference a decade can make.

As a European in Washington, I have spent much of the past few weeks listening to pillars of the American foreign policy and economic establishments. I am struck by how many of today’s U.S. debates mirror those in Europe. These two giant economies are no longer as different as they once were.

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