On the 27th of June, Barack Obama tried to bring balance back to his government’s response to the leaks from Edward Snowden by saying: “I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker”. However, this response only came after officials in the US State Department deployed the age-old schoolyard tactics of “If you don’t give me that toy, I’m not going to be your friend any more”. For the first two weeks of the NSA and GCHQ scandal, the US State Department made veiled threats to China, Russia and Ecuador. Authorities in Hong Kong were told that they were expected to hand Snowden over or Sino-American relations would suffer. The pressure towards Russia was similar.
Ecuador was warned that a trade pact with the US would be revoked. Their response was to voluntarily revoke the pact and to offer the US a $23 million aid package to be put toward education in human rights. Not since Caligula rode his horse across the Bay of Baiae has there been such an epic troll of an empire.
When Obama indicated that he was not going to spend any more geo-political capital on extraditing Snowden, it was a statement intended to get the State Department inline as their actions up until that point were wasting this capital and resembled childish schoolyard diplomacy. Such politics are a line of last resort. Whether deployed in school lunchrooms or on the front pages of newspapers; the risks of this tactic are high. If it works, it speaks to your legitimacy and strength but it can also backfire and show your weakness instead. The way the US handled the Snowden case so far, obviously points to the latter. In the fallout the State Department has been left with a response based on irony rather than fact:
“I wonder if Snowden chose Russia or China for assistance because they are such bastions of Internet freedom”, US Secretary of State John Kerry argued, while – according to The Guardian – an anonymous senior US government official echoed his statement by proclaiming: “Mr Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador”
When the NSA scandal broke, German Chancellor Merkel’s initial response was acceptance that there is a balance to be found between security and convenience. “We must find the right balance between security for our people on the one side and light-heartedness on the other.”, she argued. Finding this ironic, the opposition Green party took to the Parliament and emphatically demanded answers for her complacency. With elections in Germany nearing, this could have become a dividing issue. The opposition could have introduced legislation to further require any corporation or allied government complicit in surveillance activities on German citizens to obtain a warrant from German courts first. Any objection to this could easily be used against the governing party during the election campaign.
A few days later, based on documents from Snowden, the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NSA was spying on European citizens and diplomats en masse. The German response then became more unanimous, calling the spying an “American-style Stasi” and harshly criticizing – in unison – these activities. Finally having something to discuss other than Snowden’s current host nation, Obama attempted to deflect the issue of his government’s surveillance on European diplomats by saying that basically, everyone is spying on each other.
The Future of Western Democracy
A dialog dependent on irony is a sign of lost control over a narrative. One can find the same tactic exemplified by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he deflected questions concerning human rights abuses in Iran, by focusing on actions by the US Government against journalists as well as US prison policy. It is telling when leaders of western democracies rely on the same rhetorical style.
As the story continues to unfold it is not yet clear where the EU will stand. Despite stern language from European leadership, their actions seem to be that of disbelief. Although their populations largely sympathize with Snowden, Spain, France, Portugal and Italy still refused to allow the private jet of Bolivian president Evo Morales access to their airspace out of worry that Snowden might be onboard. The plane was forced to land in Austria where it was then searched. Snowden was not to be found but the act may have broken several international treaties concerning diplomatic immunity.
Twitter user @br3t summarized this paradoxical situation quite nicely: “The world sympathises with a public enemy who is trying to flee from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to probably save his own life. Weird.”
Judging from US and EU reactions, it is clear that however this issue is resolved, it might not happen within the boundaries of international law. What is not clear is when the reliance on rhetoric and irony will end and what effect the hunt for Edward Snowden will have on the perception of western democracy in the future.