The bad news keeps coming for the Obama administration.
There’s Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a planned trip to Washington after it was revealed that the NSA had spied on Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras), a state-owned oil company, as well as President Rousseff herself. A similar situation is also playing out in Mexico, where lawmakers are outraged over allegations in a German magazine that the NSA hacked former President Felipe Calderon’s email account.
Major European allies have also been added to the growing list of aggrieved parties. Allegations of spying on French citizens en masse, and the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone since all the way back in 2002, are nothing short of spectacular.
The official US response thus far has been a combination of outright denial, stressing the importance of data collection for fighting terrorism, and shrugging the whole thing off as an operational norm in international relations. Yet while there is definitely some truth in the refrain “everyone does it,” that doesn’t meant there will be no diplomatic fallout. On the contrary, this ever-widening scandal might impact US foreign relations in subtle, though ultimately profound ways.
The consequences will be varied, as the affected countries have different historical relationships with the United States.
In the case of Mexico and Brazil, their bilateral relationships with Washington have been influenced by the wax and wane of US domination on the continent. Given this imperialist historical subtext, allegations of this kind of spying are particularly damaging, especially in the eyes of the people, as they suggest that the United States is unwilling to approach bilateral relations on the basis of equality; that it is still stuck in the outdated mold of meddling in the domestic politics of the Americas.
President Rousseff’s cancellation of her official visit and calling off of bilateral energy talks between Brazil and the United States may one day be looked back on as a turning point. Up until now, the post-Lula US-Brazilian bilateral relationship had been a blank canvas; would it continue the animosity of the Lula era or usher in a new wave of engagement as President Obama hoped? This scandal might have taken the brush from both governments’ hands and entrusted it with a Brazilian population that is keenly sensitive to imperialist encroachments, real or imagined.
The allegations surrounding France and Germany are significant for different reasons. For one, they are more bombastic, particularly in the case of Chancellor Merkel’s phone being tapped since 2002, an act of espionage that even US internal communications acknowledged would result in “grave damage for the relations of the United States to another government” if discovered. Secondly, they’re coming at a sensitive time in German domestic politics. Recall that Chancellor Merkel grew up in East Germany, where Stasi wiretapping was a common occurrence for enemies of the regime. Merkel has always been forthright in her disgust of this kind of state monitoring and control, so to be targeted with it by an ostensible ally isn’t just embarrassing; it clashes outright with her own finely groomed political mythology. Consequently, she needs to respond decisively to US spying allegations or risk her own credibility.
Add an outraged French president to the mix and you have the two main engines of the EU aligned in opposition to US espionage. Herein lies some diplomatic space for the EU to carve out a niche and demonstrate its importance after years of recession and political setbacks. The goal of limiting the United States’ ability to gather information on European citizens is a rare instance of an issue that can unite the group’s otherwise dissonant membership. Widespread agreement was already apparent at an EU summit this weekend, where various heads of state voiced their enthusiastic support of Chancellor Merkel’s hard stance. European Parliament President Martin Schulz went so far as to suggest that US-EU negotiations on a free trade agreement should be suspended until the Americans “prove they can be trusted.”
Whether “everyone does it” or not, US spying allegations will be seized on in the short term by the EU, and run with until there is some act of contrition on the part of the United States, whether in the form of an apology, new assurances, or an actual treaty. This is to be expected, as anything less would fail to save face in the eyes of the European voting public. Less settled, and far more salient, is the question of whether these allegations represent some kind of watershed in the history of EU-US relations. As several media outlets have rightly pointed out, one doesn’t bug a world leader’s phone over counterterrorism considerations; they do so to gain an advantage, likely an economic one. In a world without a Soviet-style ideological threat to buttress the trans-Atlantic alliance, can the special relationship between the EU and the United States, two de facto economic competitors, survive such a fundamental breach of trust?
For this, we will have to wait and see, and there will almost surely be new revelations to rock US foreign relations establishment in the meantime. The Guardian newspaper has reported on a confidential memo stating the NSA could monitor 35 world leaders’ communications back in 2006. There may be a few more outraged world leaders yet before this scandal is over with.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com