Governments are supposed to protect their nations from foreign threats, and good intelligence is critical to that task. And while spying on enemies is not particularly controversial, things get more complicated when clandestine intelligence operations are directed at friends and partners. There has to be a careful balancing of benefits and potential for damage—especially if activities become public.
The crisis around the leaks by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden shows why unrestricted snooping on partners—especially their leaders—can be a bad idea unless driven by compelling national security needs. The information we have been given to justify the programs alleged by Snowden doesn’t seem to clear that bar. Yes, everybody spies. But the ease with which countries covertly, and routinely, gather information about each other doesn’t change the stakes.
Among close partners, trust is precious and is crucial to cooperation. It can be hard to build and easy to lose. So it should be no surprise that trust was the biggest casualty when the Snowden leaks revealed that the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and other leaders, were intercepted.
The reaction from the Mexican government was quietly (but pointedly) conveyed through bilateral channels. Mexico is our closest partner in Latin America, a leading player in Atlantic, Pacific, North American, and Latin American integration, and is today a vital link in U.S. competitiveness. Harming the trust that undergirds that relationship for the sake of an occasional juicy intercept is short-sighted, especially when the level of confidence between both nations was probably at an historic high point.
The Brazil case is more fraught because the official relationship is not as close. Many in Brazil’s current leadership do not see the U.S. as a friend, while many U.S. officials see in Brazil’s policies an outdated zero-sum approach to geopolitics that hampers collaboration. These perceptions already represented barriers that needed to be overcome, and the spying revelations didn’t help matters. Brazil is one of the world’s largest multi-ethnic democracies and its social values and outlook are overwhelmingly Western. As its economy opens to facilitate growth and to sustain gains in social equity, Brazil’s interests will increasingly converge with those of the U.S. As that happens, Brazil will be an increasingly important player whose success we seek, whose partnership we need, and whose respect we want.
All of these aims are much harder to achieve now. Voices in Brazil opposing broader bilateral cooperation have been strengthened, to the disadvantage of both countries. The cancellation of Rousseff’s state visit to the U.S. was more than a skipped dinner date: it was a setback to specific initiatives that would have advanced a closer bilateral agenda.
Beyond bilateral relations, the NSA leaks have, more broadly, corroded trust and confidence in the U.S. around the world, harming a number of our longer-term global interests.
Trans-atlantic security cooperation is the most effective networked generator of global public goods. Unprecedented levels of information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, based on trust, have leveraged shared values to protect our societies from threats new and old. But due to leader-spying revelations, public opinion in Europe is turning increasingly skeptical of that cooperation. Exemplifying that trend, in October the European Parliament chose to freeze a financial transactions information-sharing pact between the EU and the U.S. that was aimed at tracking terrorism funding.
The revelations have also impeded progress toward a U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement, perhaps the single most strategically important Trans-Atlantic project today. Anger over U.S. spying also now drives European demands for establishing more stringent data privacy standards—standards the U.S. is unlikely to accept.
American businesses—particularly in advanced electronics—will also be hobbled for years by suspicion that their products have been compromised by the NSA. This will affect countless procurement decisions. Many foreign businesses and governments are already re-evaluating their relations with U.S. Internet service providers. Commercial fallout includes Brazil’s decision to choose Saab over Boeing in deal for 32 fighter jets—a loss for Boeing of $4.2 billion.
The fallout from the Snowden leaks is also accelerating America’s loss of control of the global Internet agenda. Some may cheer, but U.S. values of transparency, free inquiry and open access to information have largely shaped the global web, even if they have sometimes been resisted. That resistance will grow now, as restrictionists, many with mixed motives, invoke a supposed need for data localization and a host of other controls to protect information and rights. The revelations seem certain to strengthen a trend toward a more fragmented and nationally regulated Internet, imposing costs in economic growth, innovation and personal freedoms on all societies. The effects will fall disproportionately on emerging countries, smaller businesses and marginalized groups, for whom the Internet has provided the means to join a global economy or find strength in a global community.
The greatest casualty of all, however, may be the fall from the moral high ground on which the U.S. was able to oppose escalating and increasingly sophisticated cyber espionage—especially commercial—by China and others. More vulnerable now to charges of double standards, the U.S. will find it substantially harder to oppose and stigmatize foreign governments that use the Internet to steal proprietary business information and conduct other aggressive operations in cyberspace—the great strategic battleground of this century.
As a practical matter, the U.S. will have to deal with the fallout from the information revealed, and yet to be revealed, for some time to come. Yet the challenge also represents a huge opportunity. Washington and its allies can use this moment of global reflection to forge new standards for behavior that can simultaneously sustain key values and protect national security. This should start with greater focus on embedding trust at every level of international engagement. We need reliable new protocols for information sharing that accommodate true needs for secrecy, but have solid, legitimate and sustainable political foundations.
This process seems to be already under way. Around the world, senior U.S. officials are being put on the spot by tough, specific and unprecedented questions by top foreign officials—and there isn’t much tolerance for bureaucratic answers. More broadly, American leaders in the executive and legislative branches need to do a better job of calibrating, updating and overseeing our tools of statecraft. U.S. intelligence agencies have critical missions. The better they and other institutions are at adapting to constantly shifting terrain and prioritizing, the better off America will be.