Daniel W. Drezner

What Edward Snowden tells us about international relations theory

What Edward Snowden tells us about international relations theory

Your humble blogger is vacationing the hell out of this week, so as a result his gimlet eye for international relations is likely a bit dulled. That’s a fancy way of saying that this post might be more wrong than my typical post, so I’m looking forward to pushback more than usual. 

Still, reviewing the latest Edward Snowden news, what’s striking is the manner in which states that have recently exulted in jabbing the United States have changed their tune when it comes to granting Snowden asylum.  When Vladimir Putin asks Snowden to cut-it-out-with-the-damaging-anti-American-leaks-already, you know something’s askew.   This Reuters story sums up the situation nicely

Snowden has prepared asylum requests in countries including India, China, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, Bolivia, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela, WikiLeaks has said.

But several countries, including Snowden’s favored Ecuador, said on Tuesday they could not consider an asylum request from Snowden unless he was on their territory.

Norway said he was unlikely to get asylum there, and Poland said it would not give a "positive recommendation" to any request. Finland, Spain, Ireland and Austria said he had to be in their countries to make a request, while India said "we see no reason" to accept his petition.

France said it had not received a request.

Officials in Russia, which has made clear it wants Snowden to leave, say an embassy car would be considered foreign territory if a country picked him up – possibly a message to leaders of oil-producing countries in Moscow for talks this week.

Snowden’s options have narrowed sharply.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was quoted in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday as saying he could not consider the asylum request and that giving Snowden a temporary travel pass to fly to Moscow was "a mistake on our part".

It appears that Venezuela might be the one country ready to grant him asylum… but we’ll see if that actually comes to fruition.   

So, what’s going on?  Could it be that countries as variegated as Russia, China, and Ecuador are suddenly fearful of the coercive power of U.S. hegemony in a way that they weren’t last week? 

I’d suggest an alternative hypothesis.  The one thing that all of these actors have in common with the USA is that they are… states.  And if there’s one thing that states of all regime types and ideologies have in common, it’s that they don’t like it when new types of entities try to f**k with their franchise. 

States will war with one another, spy on one another, foment revolution across borders, and what-not.  They are pretty reluctant, however to empower actors that can then use that power to try and erode the principal of the state as the ne plus ultra of governing authority.  This is why countries like Iran and Russia cooperated with the United States during crucial periods of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war on terror.  When states see a threat to the Westphalian order that’s been around for a few centuries, they will act in concert to repel it. 

So long as Snowden was embarrassing the United States and the United States alone, U.S. rivals saw no problem with egging him on.  As Snowden aligns himself more closely to Wikileaks, however, more and more countries will look askance at what he represents.  Of course, this creates a vicious feedback loop.   As Snowden finds his allies shrinking in number, he will naturally cling to his remaining supporters even more closely (and spurn his former friends).  And the more that Snowden seems like an extension of the Wikileaks brand, the more states that will refuse to aid him.  

Am I missing anything?