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.

More from GPS: Intelligence situation unacceptable 

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.

More from CNN: 5 things to know

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 (150 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    Sarah Palin's entire schtick is repeating ridiculous lies and simply opposing things that liberals support for no other reason than to be a childish, annoying, petulant troublemaker. It's clear that she has no actual values or ideas. Just narcissism and greed...and she's lazy with no work ethic. Anybody who would vote for her for a serious role in government is the epitome of a low information voter. See my post at 12:27 pm for the definition of a low information voter.

    November 4, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Evander

      and with your childish name we should give you credence because?

      November 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • MariaErics

      Sarah Palin is a demagogue. Unfortunately, there are way too many politicians like her.

      November 4, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • smdahl

      Who cares about Palin? I mean besides trolls who name themselves after her? We didn't elect that criminal we elected another one, let's fix the problem we have.

      November 5, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • digitalclips

      Re Palin: I agree for the most part with you. However, I think you give her far too much credit, I doubt she has the brains to even think of half the things you suggest.

      November 8, 2013 at 8:31 am |
      • palin is old news

        very boring

        February 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
  2. Rick McDaniel

    Frankly.........this regime has demonstrated, that it cannot be trusted by anyone........literally. No one in the WORLD can trust Obama, in any country, anywhere.

    November 4, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Rene

      Interesting comment. Did you read the part of the article that says that the surveilance on foreign leaders started in 2002, i.e. under Pres Bush...a Republican...eveyone does it, the only differenece is they dont have the $$$ and tech know how we do stop blaming the president and sayiing that he can not be sound like a Fox, Limbaugh, Beck , Tea Party follower....

      November 4, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
      • sylvia

        You nailed it. Sometimes people suffer from short term memory loss.

        November 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
      • stan

        Riiiiight! So just like EVERYTHING else if Bush did it first that makes it okay for Obama too?!? Are you progressives admitting then that Bush was RIGHT in everything he did? I mean come on man, not only did Obama continue many of Bush's policies he doubled down on them. Expanded them. Re-authorized them.
        Obama ran for president promising to un-do the Bush damage. Remember? He said that the Bush policies were bad, unamerican, immoral, etc. Yet once becoming presidente he himself continued each and every policy, and as I noted above, he expanded many. Obama reversed himself on gay marriage, on raising the debt ceiling, transparency, Gitmo. He straight out lied about the effects of Obamacare. Lied about domestic surveillance.
        As the Clintons said 'He's an amateur'.

        November 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
      • Evander

        Since the first 2 countries came into existence they spied on each other. Really to make this modern Dem/Repub is the height of stupid.

        November 4, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
      • Sharpy

        Obama is the first black President and cannot act on his values because as with JFK he is a target, any extreme move will bring about his demise. Thus he tried to mediate rather than rule and the republician party shut him out and refused to work with him! If he agreed with them they would change their own policies and views. Sad but true tale now if say Clinton gets in the republicians are in trouble because women move straight ahead and are goal motivated.

        November 28, 2013 at 4:09 am |
    • rick

      from one rick to another; coo Coo!

      November 5, 2013 at 8:39 am |

      it's not obama it's george bush and the pariot act look it up! thats were all the controls went. i love the fact that everyone blames obama for everything thats wrong. it's our hole system and the special intrest and greed that wrong wake up

      November 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
      • Trevor

        The current administration could at ANYTIME proposed the Patriot Act be amended and/or repealed. Continuing ANY "bad" law instead of correcting it/repealing it is bad, in-fact, its worse because there are actual detrimental results that have been observed and STILL nothing is done...

        Deflection to "special interests", "greed" or "the system" is merely an EXCUSE for poor leadership and a lack of conviction...

        November 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
      • Sharpy

        Why wast time trying to repel a law when republicians won't let you?

        November 28, 2013 at 4:10 am |
  3. John Ward

    Do you actually believe that every other country is not doing the same thing? And that it started in 2002? For goodness sake, every country in the world has always done all it could to gather useful information and they still do.

    November 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Sharpy

      But they were not caught! heck stealing, murder enslavement all done by governments is ok until they are caught right. If justification is that everyone is doing this then killing would be legal along with all common crimes but it is not!

      November 28, 2013 at 4:15 am |
      • Sharpy

        Imagine if it was the USA that caught say Iran bugging the white-house how much bigger would the issue become and what military action would result?

        November 28, 2013 at 4:18 am |
      • don't need to imagine it

        and really not an interesting question, anything iran does (govt, not the people of iran) has that stench to it that reliably will come back exactly not in the greater world's benefit, and hasn't for some time (really, when was the last time in recent memory that iran did something that benefited anyone but the rulling party of iran

        February 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm |
  4. OdinVonTogan

    Well, I heard that the Germans were going to bomb Pearl Harbor again, so...

    Actually, since it is the British guy writing about Re-Ordering The World, when the USA was at the top, where does he want the USA to go (answer, down), and, doesn't that make the British the enemy?

    No, wait, wasn't it Bush1, Clinton, Bush2, and Obama (i.e., the US government) who said they support a New World Order – so, where do they want the US to go when it was at the top and they want a new order? (answer, down), and, doesn't that make them the enemy?

    Seem like that's been said before: "Sometimes, your worst enemy is in the mirror".

    November 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Nick

    I'll blame the president, I voted for him. It's Obama's fault even though as mentioned the wire tap on Merkal started under Bush in 2002. Obama promised transparency and to look into abuses that were occurring under the last administration. What he got for doing nothing was Snowden. It's his own fault for in-action. He would have known of the wiretaps of other world leaders, it was his choice to continue.

    November 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • deepfreeze

      Well said Nick.

      November 4, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
      • I don't think well said

        I think all that is going to result from snowden is the next iteration (technology) of spying will happen, really nothing except interesting reading from the NSA leaking will result

        February 10, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
    • Sharpy

      Since everyone does it then Snowden should be a non-issue right? Since everything he leaked was already known by spying on the USA. Funny how Snowden points out crimes including deaths and he is the one in trouble???

      November 28, 2013 at 4:23 am |
    • minnie mouse

      Good plan. Obama should have eliminated our wiretaps of world governments who are wiretapping us. Good thing you aren't responsible for my family's safety.

      December 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  6. Laughing Skeptic

    Just because German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was in the database, does not mean that we were spying on her. The only person "spying" on her may have been Snowden himself who illegally used his illegally obtained escalated access to look at her records. Spying on people is more than just dragnet data collection. The spying starts when analysts start using the collected data. Its a "cat in a box" situation until someone looks.

    November 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
    • Sharpy

      What Snowden was security cleared and spying starts when you spy on people not when the data is used! What are you smoking?

      November 28, 2013 at 4:26 am |
      • minnie mouse

        Your fears have come true. 10,000 FBI agents are reading through 400,000,000,000 Trillion lines of 2012 personal data on American citizens. They'll be finished reading in 2038. That gives you time to move to Canada first.

        December 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
      • I've been to Canada

        who wants to live there?

        February 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm |
  7. stephen48739

    Trust but verify, between friends and enemies. When a spy is caught, noise is made for public consumption, then both sides quietly exchange spies. Hypocrites claim innocence, cry foul, when, if given the chance and same abilities, would do exactly the same. Those who advocate isolationist policies, whether it's blocking immigration reform, or promoting high tariffs on trade goods, risk a repeat of history and wars between countries. Trade between countries, causing "economic interdependence and cooperation" is the key to world peace.

    November 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  8. Evander

    Governments have been spying on each other since there were government. Walk it off folks.

    November 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  9. mayhem4u

    Spying something that most countries do on a daily basis. The U.S. is just guilty of getting caught at it. Obama is the man in charge, so he has to man up and take the blame. It's just part of the job.

    Spying;sadly just one more thing that Obama just isn't that good at!!!

    November 4, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Sharpy

      Huh Obama wasn't doing the actual spying you realize, maybe you don't?

      November 28, 2013 at 4:31 am |
    • minnie mouse

      Obama should take the credit.

      December 11, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
      • if he took credit what would be the benefit?

        I don't see this as something that results in anything better, spying has always happened and will continue

        February 10, 2014 at 4:59 pm |
  10. chrissy

    @ rightospeak, not quite sure why or what you were addressing me about. I haven't posted since last night and when i did post i was talking about our lazy Congress who works less than 6 months out of the year and recieves an exorbitant salary for that and accomplishes nothing during that time. I certainly wasn't trying to offend you! Well, unless you are a member of Congress!

    November 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  11. joe d

    israel and AIPAC/aipac owned congress have destroyed the U.S. we must extract the parasites

    November 5, 2013 at 7:08 am |
  12. rick

    any nation claiming shock is a nation practicing hypocrisy and the statements they make can simply be ignored. what a bunch of doofusses. everyone knows that every nation spies on every other nation for their own safety and self interest, to pretend otherwise is to believe in harry Potter.

    November 5, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • Sharpy

      It is shocking why because it is the USA that got caught and that means all those foreign secrets could get out and this damages trust in American security. But yep everyone does it but that does not make it right and it is an issue I have to use this reasoning because it demeans society as a whole. Imagine if anything became legal because everyone is doing it-scary!

      November 28, 2013 at 4:42 am |
      • minnie mouse

        That's the difference between you and me. I worry about my family getting blown up by poor-misunderstood-terrorists but you worry about being demeaned.

        December 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
      • family

        now that makes sense

        February 10, 2014 at 5:02 pm |
  13. guest

    I think there is some serious irony here.

    Hidden facts have become known, policies that were put in place by the former administration are being questioned, new controls are being called for.

    Yet the president is being blamed for lack of transparency? I dont think people are giving enough credence to the amount of obfuscation and misdirection that had been installed in government before the current administration was in place.

    Moderates told you dopes what the Patriot Act actually was and why the GOP would even want it in the first place. Their voices were drowned out by a slough of dirt suddenly uncovered about many political opponents and straight up fear mongering and posturing by the very people America should have feared most: the people installing a system to collect pretty much all internet and digital traffic. The same people creating hardship and shortage through false scarcity tactics and using legislation to create windfall profits for businesses owned by the very politicians creating the legislation. The same people buying oil for the national reserves while oil was at all time highs per barrel. The same people that de-regulated credit default swaps to first cash in on the housing market, and then cashing in on creating government shutdown using the exact same vehicle.

    Your irony makes me sick.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      The next thing they will be demanding is "transparency" from the CIA.

      December 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  14. Rick McDaniel

    The Obama Regime has no intention of backing down, even a little bit, from their spying. That is how they have garnered total control of America, and they are not giving that up.........for anyone.

    November 6, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      I hope you are correct.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
      • minnie for prez

        I like it

        February 10, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
  15. Sparkieee

    (this is fascinating....there really are two americas can see them trying desperately to not communicate in all these posts.....we have been taught by our media and our politicians to hate each other....maybe they know us better than we know ourselves....? or maybe we should stop listening to them and start listening to each other.....

    November 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  16. Eric

    Brilliant take on this. The U.S. is not doing anything outside of the rest of the modern world. We're far ahead with the technological gap, but that doesn't mean that our allied nations wouldn't use the same tactics to ensure the security of their borders. As this is priority one for a state to protect its citizens. In a time where unorthodox gorilla warfare seems to be the stamp of the terrorist groups that loath economically successful nations. This is absolutely necessary to protect ourselves and our allies from this agenda of terror. As we're currently the world police, we're reprimanded for taking action, as well as the backseat. It's just the social nature of the masses to expect any different and then get mad when we don't.

    November 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  17. steve mann

    And on the strength of a deal-
    Saudi is in the process of possibly purchasing atomic weapons from Pakistan- So Kerry open your eyes and put your brain in gear before doing something you will not be able to reverse.

    November 10, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  18. globeharmony

    The so called jungle only matters when America wants to control and dominate the jungle for its own benefit.

    November 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      The "Innocent" Jungle came over here and killed my bond trader boyfriend in the Twin Towers on September 11. The Jungle must pay for that choice.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  19. Brent

    Fareed is smarter than the entire United States Congress and both parties. I totally agree with all of this.

    November 21, 2013 at 8:26 am |
  20. waira fred

    Well that is the trend the world has been subjected to by the so called supper powers in order to uphold their selfish interests. USA has been doing what it's known of best;_spying everyone. Though what surprise me is when emerging powers like China do suit(through cyber attacks), USA cries fouls to everyone who wish to hear them.
    It was rather disgusting to hear that the most powerful woman (Angel Markel) is also a prey. I really thought she was a real ally who would have been at least spared. I think most Nations who had given USA the free will to be their everything might review their stands. This does not only cause mistrust but might prompt nationalistic calls in some Nations to stand up for self security system guarantees in terms of privacy policies. Etc.

    November 21, 2013 at 10:35 am |

    Dixie Point out University held $2.8 million of their complete $10 million of endowment resources in personal shares and company bonds, not permitted beneath the regents' present-day policy. In addition they are not tracking their full portfolio but only how much is with each expense manager.

    November 25, 2013 at 5:18 am |
  22. deniz boro

    Safe and sound 😉

    November 26, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  23. deniz boro

    The spies also need jobs. Let them have their field day by putting all the nice photos on your sociel nets. I personnaly put the human's right decleration in all the unusual languages on my facebook during the Gezi Incident in Turkey. You have to help the culture of your fellow humans.

    November 26, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  24. LT Fang

    I agree with the premises. There needs to be a set of rules, but espionage must go on.

    November 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  25. deniz boro

    Needs of the persons must be satisifed 😉 There is somehow a classical saying "The freedom of a person ends where another one's start". That is supposed to be the çivil way of living together. So if you are a bit too adventurous to cut down the arteries of the opposite party...Rather than Show them a way out.... Let's dwell on it for a moment shall we? There must be a way that satisfies all ends.

    November 29, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      I guess some people forgot that social rule during the Holocaust.

      December 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  26. reformer

    The coalition knows the social psychology of its network. How is this aggregation of preferences being used in public policy formation today?

    Will society and individuals be judged using data that accurately reflects the queries entered? Would Google ever be politically pressured to skew the preference distribution of a sensitive subject or political/social issue?

    November 30, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  27. Jessica McGwin

    What about the privet companies that spy on their employees. Some times I feel that the government whom we contract to defend the very air we breath not to mention all else that we have gets held under the ever watchful eye of the people. But when companies spy on the own employees and steal intellectual property it is just business and the employee should just be grateful to still have a job. Happens every day. Lastly the data we are able to gather is not always clear cut. People know they are being listened to. Most adapt their conversations to surveillance. So by the time an annalist aka translator digests the conversation it is to late anyway. They do not hire people that have street knowledge of underground langue because finding one with out a criminal back ground or a serious drug problem is next to impossible. There is no need to be green with envy. If we were 1/2 as good as the US boosts. We would not have hired a Chinese spy, Boston would have been prevented and the army would have known they hired an opritve before he shot up our troops on our own soil. Am I embarrassed no. I am in danger.

    December 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  28. Jack Dawson

    If you have the right permit, you can buy dynamite. AR style rifles are being used more and more for everything from varmint hunting(four legged) to big game(.308 is a good deer round). I know a good number of people whose AR 15 style rifles have never killed anything other than paper at a range. You can not make blanket statements about any firearm.

    December 8, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
  29. Pablo

    Europe is protesting softly regarding US spying because frankly they need the United States to carry the responsibility of world security. It is certain they new and supported spying within Europe to detect terrorists. They likely expected some domestic espionage as well, just no on their leaders.

    To be blunt, Europe is NOT living up to their responsibilities to provide security for their worldwide interests, or even within Europe. They depend on the US and US resources. Britain and France can't even maintain a credible navy nor field an single aircraft carrier.

    European nations are likely depending on the US to provide electronic surveillance and to coordinate between multinational companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft.

    December 10, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • minnie mouse

      It is unwise and unfair to underestimate the security work and sharing of our European allies.

      December 11, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  30. palintwit

    There do not be a lot of pleasant information if I attack it to China because I control information

    December 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
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