By Fareed Zakaria
The revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency and its spying on foreign – even allied leaders – has been embarrassing for the Obama administration at a time when it hardly needs more bad news. Last week, European leaders reacted angrily to claims that the United States had been eavesdropping on calls, including listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
The revelations prompted Merkel to warn relations with the U.S. had been severely shaken. But is all this more than just an embarrassment? And should it raise alarms abroad and at home?
At first glance, this is a story that is less about ethics and more about power – the great power gap between the United States and other countries, even rich European ones. The most illuminating response to the revelations came from Bernard Kouchner, formerly the foreign minister of France. He said in a radio interview: "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else." Kouchner went on to add "we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous."
America spends tens of billions of dollars on intelligence collection. It's hard to get the data to make good comparisons, but it's safe to assume that Washington's intelligence budget dwarfs that of other countries just as it does with defense spending.
It has seemed particularly strange that this rift should develop between the United States and its closest allies in Europe. But it was predictable and in fact, in a sense, predicted.
In 2002, the British diplomat Robert Cooper wrote an influential essay in which he argued that Europe had become a "postmodern" international system in which force was no longer a serious option. Instead, economic interdependence and cooperation were the governing ideas of statecraft. And certainly when one looks at the European Union, this does seem to describe its reality. The prospect of war between France and Germany – which had gone to war three times between 1870 and 1950 – seems utterly impossible.
But outside of Europe, the world is not post-modern. Cooper argues that the solution is "double standards." Within Europe, one set of rules. Outside it, he recommends “rougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary.”
“Among ourselves we keep the law, but when operating in the jungle, we must use the laws of the jungle,” Cooper wrote in Re-Ordering the World.
This is what was violated by the NSA activities. Washington was playing by the laws of the jungle, but inside Europe's system. Partly this is because the distinction is not easy to maintain: what if you're looking for terrorists within Europe, that is, people who still play by the laws of the jungle – or even worse.
America as a global power is operating all over the world, trying to tackle some of the nastiest threats out there. Perhaps it doesn’t have the luxury to retreat to a garden and renounce nasty tactics. If it did, it’s not likely that China, Russia, Iran – not to mention al Qaeda – would follow suit.
But precisely because Washington has to get its hands dirty, it should be smart about this. The rewards of spying on friendly heads of government are probably outweighed by the risks. And most troubling, it's not clear that many of these specific activities were clearly thought through and directed by the White House. Nor do they appear to have been vetted by Congress. At least, not thoroughly enough.
In the wake of 9/11, America got scared and dropped any sense of constraints on its intelligence activities. It is not an accident that the eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel began in 2002. But the fact that technology now allows the NSA to do anything doesn't mean it should do everything. We need a better and clearer set of rules for intelligence activity. And we need confidence that these rules are being followed and observed.
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