Stephen M. Walt

News Flash: States Spy on Each Other

News Flash: States Spy on Each Other

The National Security Agency has done us all a service by reminding the world that international politics is still a) inherently competitive and b) primarily conducted by nation-states. I refer, of course, to the recent revelations that in addition to spying on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency (NSA) has also been spying on America’s European allies. You know: our closest strategic partners!

Cue the old line from Casablanca ("I’m shocked, shocked…"). As former NSA head Michael Hayden retorted on a Sunday news show: "No. 1: The United States does conduct espionage.… No. 2: Our Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans’ privacy, is not an international treaty. And No. 3: Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing."

Never mind that the Fourth Amendment isn’t doing a great job of protecting Americans’ privacy either. The broader point is that the NSA’s activities in Europe provide a striking counter to the idealistic rhetoric about transatlantic solidarity that we been accustomed to hearing for the past 50 years or more. During the Cold War, both the United States and its European allies had good reasons to emphasize common political values and invoke phrases and symbols of an "Atlantic Community." Power politics was always the real reason for NATO and transatlantic cooperation, but feel-good rhetoric about how we were all in this together and part of a broader political community helped paper over differences about burden-sharing and disguise the degree to which the alliance was always dominated by the United States. Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the only prominent European leader who took serious issue with this conception, but even he never did anything that threatened the basic principles of this Atlantic order.

No, Virginia, we are not a "transatlantic community" in any meaningful sense of that term. It’s not even clear if the European community is going to hold together in the future as it has in the recent past, given the travails of the eurozone and the residual power of nationalism throughout the continent. What we are is a set of national states whose interests align in many areas, but not everywhere. And that’s also why various proposals for a global "League of Democracies" were always a bit silly: Sharing a democratic system is too weak a reed on which to rest a global alliance. Even democratic states experience conflicts of interest with each other, and as the NSA has now shown, they continue to see each other as competitors and spy on each other in order to seize various advantages.

So nobody should be surprised that the United States was using its superior technical capacity to try to gain an edge on its European partners, and you can be sure that America’s European allies have been spying on the United States too, if not as extensively or as expensively.

What will it mean? One might expect Europeans to protest loudly — if only to appease their offended publics — but then revert to type and do little concrete in response. After all, America’s European partners have a long history of deferring to Washington, and it’s not entirely clear why anyone should expect them to grow a real backbone now. I can’t quite see David Cameron, François Hollande, or even Angela Merkel doing anything really bold or confrontational, can you? And as Hayden suggests, it’s not like they aren’t doing similar things in their own fashion.

Which is not to say this aspect of the Snowden affair won’t have significant consequences. Exposure of the NSA’s efforts is bound to complicate efforts to negotiate a transatlantic trade and investment agreement, an initiative that faced plenty of obstacles already. It is also going to give ammunition to all those people who are worried about the globalization of information and who would like to see governments do more to protect privacy and limit both corporate and governmental data-collection. And that makes me wonder whether we are now at the high-water mark of loosely regulated global connectivity, and that all these revelations will eventually lead both democracies and authoritarian societies to place much stricter limits on how information flows between societies (and individuals).

If so, then you should probably enjoy the Wild West of Internet freedom while you can, before the firewalls go up.