November 2nd, 2013
02:47 PM ET

Law of the jungle not good enough

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.

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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.

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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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Topics: Europe • Spying • United States

soundoff (146 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    I think that it is on the Anonymous turn when it is not in a big problem in Chinese information control propaganda and human rights being mysterious and is considerably covered the treasure information in China

    December 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  2. Prassoon Suryadas

    Folks, while you guys team up wearing red and blue blaming each other the Builderbergers will sink the ship. Wake up, remove the rosy glasses, swallow your pride and look beyond what you see...

    January 8, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  3. Ed Davis

    Mr Zacaria says " technology gives the NSA the ability to do anything but that does not mean they should do everything". True. In the control of Barrack Obama the NSA is not frightening to me. But when easily persuaded 'suits' that rely on culprits like Dick Cheney to steer the spy agencies are in control, LOOK OUT!

    February 8, 2014 at 9:26 am | Reply
    • larsonst

      Agreed. I doubt any American can show their civl liberties have been negatively impacted, especially during Obama. But I am old enough to remember Nixon, Hoover and Cheney so I believe we need to let the NSA do their best, while keeping a close leash (closer than now) on any excesses towards US citizens.
      This also goes for Google, Amazon, Citi, and the dozens of biz-intel (cookies) I frequently remove from my browser. We are watched everywhere and manipulated constantly. Sometimes for good (speeding, stealing, fighting) and sometimes not (product, health, news recommendations, etc.). I would like a tighter leash on commercial intel, that feels more invasive to me.

      February 22, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  4. I think that your comment probably is very good

    in your first language

    February 10, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  5. Lord Toronaga

    By all accounts we are the nastiest.

    March 2, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  6. Millridge

    I totally agree with Fareed Zakaria statement in this video.
    NAS's activities should be governed by more clear and well defined rules and guidelines.
    There also should be honest, capable, and independent oversight committee to review the activity lot to avoid any abuse of technology and power.

    Absolute power and no regultion lead to absolute corruption!
    Everybody can use the slogan of national security, race, freedom of something, to distort of any good intention into self serving campaign!

    March 3, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  7. mike roark

    The battle has always been the same and is summed perfectly in A Few Good Men when LTC Jessup (sp?) rants about the need for the forward elements to adopt what works, which often conflicts with the concepts held far behind the front lines. While the front lines are far less clearly defined now than in the not so distant past, they do still exist. They are more fluid and more dynamic and also appear and disappear far more quickly. In large part, the increase in the pace of war, both the classic vision of a battle and the now more common, "light" intensity conflict, drove the adoption of Airland Battle 2000 doctrine. The doctrine has been modified and tweaked and adjusted but with some core concepts retained and held dearly. Cyber Warfare simply extends the combat theater. As much as we probably do not like it, we have adopted a less physically lethal but far more destructive approach to Total War.

    We are unlikely to ever balance the equation to many people's satisfaction. Things change too rapidly. While I am not a fan of the current president and his approach, I do respect the hell out of anyone who is willing to try to do the job. I cannot imagine how any president or political leader who has some of the information that must be held close to the vest ever sleeps. Imagine the worst problem you have ever had and multiply it infinitely. That has to be about like a regular day in the life of the ones who know far more than we do. Add to that the implications of each decision and the impact it is going to have on countless lives. Has to be horrible.

    March 13, 2014 at 6:24 am | Reply
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