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Dear USA: Might Doesn't Make Right, And Moles Make Miserable Allies

Hard times for American foreign policy, which no longer seems to differentiate between friend and foe. European heads of state who have been spied on don't appreciate that one bit.

Anti-NSA protests in Berlin
Anti-NSA protests in Berlin
Uwe Schmitt

WASHINGTON — Within the space of a few days, U.S. ambassadors in Paris, Mexico City and Berlin have been called into crisis talks, and President Barack Obama has received two angry phone calls from European heads of state.

These are difficult times for American foreign policy, which no longer seems to differentiate between friend and foe. At least, that is the unpleasant impression created by new allegations that the U.S. has been spying on its allies and even their heads of government.

The fact that the whistleblowers — former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, who leaked information about phone-tapping, and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who reported it — are being treated as spies only serves to condemn the U.S. government further. This paranoid surveillance of everyone and everything is becoming highly damaging for the country’s international reputation.

The American media’s reaction to the allegations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was tapped has been rather muted, but it seems none of the newspapers fails to mention that Merkel grew up in “communist East Germany,” as if her experience of the Stasi made Merkel particularly sensitive to being spied on. But the example of the Stasi shows that mass surveillance no longer leads to valuable information.

It would take an impossibly large commitment of both time and manpower to evaluate such a flood of information. Surely the National Security Agency would be drowning in data if the allegations of tapping 70 million French phone calls in one month turned out to be true? It seems that U.S. columnists are not endowed with a gift for irony. Otherwise they might have reassured their allies by pointing to the ongoing problems with the Obamacare website. “Don’t worry, dear Europeans, our government employees are far too sloppy to do any damage with your data.”

Nurturing mistrust

The American approach seems to be that “anyone who threatens our security must be prepared to accept that we determine how to act.” It is an attitude that claims the law of the strongest (“might makes right”) for the USA, giving it precedence over international organizations like the United Nations. Barack Obama may well have said in September that the United States is not the world police, his words do not match his actions. Of course, the U.S. wants to play world police — as long as it can gain more than it loses.

The shock of 9/11 has thrown a country that was known for its soft power and confident approach into a frenzy of paranoia. No matter their political affiliations, Americans agree that their country has changed significantly. Coolness has been pushed out by anxious defensiveness, and the traditional American welcome has been replaced by mistrust towards students and tourists applying for visas. Everyone agrees that it is a sad situation.

Within the political sphere there is still some distinction: Republicans tend to place national security above all else, even above the constitutions of other democracies, while Democrats show a few more scruples and argue that war is wrong as long as the “war on poverty” in their own country is being lost. But even leftists who are constantly accused of weakness on questions of national security can succumb to paranoia.

Barack Obama won over most Europeans with his charisma and common sense, showing a more modest side of the U.S. He was hastily awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of a few pretty speeches. Then he intensified drone attacks, failed to close down Guantanamo Bay prison and had his reputation damaged by whistleblowers. Now he has to deal with the spying complaints from European heads of state. While it is unlikely that Obama himself authorized such actions, he must have known the country’s secret surveillance efforts had spiraled out of control. Today Obama can no longer count on sympathy from Europe.

George W. Bush may have been seen as a war-hungry if not particularly clever hawk, but Obama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: conciliatory, always smiling and intelligent but hard as steel on the inside.

U.S. National Intelligence chief James Clapper described the phone-tapping allegations reported in Le Monde as “misleading and inaccurate.” But to believe such protestations would be as naive as assuming that America’s European allies would not also spy on the U.S. if they had the same advanced technology at their disposal.

Those Americans who recognize that their country is in desperate need of allies to face the complex post-Cold War world are rapidly diminishing. Without the cooperation of the Mexican government, it will be impossible to combat illegal immigration and the drugs and weapons trade. Germany is a valuable friend in Europe and plays a leading role in relations with Russia. Brazil’s sphere of influence is spreading far beyond South America. Barack Obama is too clever to ignore this, and as the U.S. constitution does not allow presidents a third term in office, he does not need to play bad cop in order to win votes.

During Obama’s state visit in June, Angela Merkel joked that she didn’t know of any instance when her phone calls had been tapped. Back then the German chancellor’s words were spoken in jest. Now they leave a bitter taste.

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