The Nerd Who Came In From The Cold

In one of the great scenes from the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, after being confronted by a pool of Western reporters about the French army’s use of torture against Algerian insurgents, the French officer Mathieu poses a question of his own: “Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” No mere colonial possession, Algeria was considered part of metropolitan France itself, the equivalent of a US state in outright rebellion against the federal government. To concede victory to the National Liberation Front (FLN) was to call into question the very integrity of the French republic itself — and coming on the heels of the Second World War and the collapse of the French empire in Indochina, this was no mere abstraction, but a question of existential importance for France. In the end, of course, the war toppled the fourth French republic, making way for the return of Charles de Gaulle and the rise of the fifth republic — yet France could not and would not stay in Algeria. Today, while French self-regard is as strong as ever, French pretentions to global power are just that — pretentions. Meanwhile, the United States stands astride the world with hundreds of bases around the globe, unrivaled naval and air power, and a breathtaking capacity for intelligence gathering via satellites in space and electronic surveillance. One might expect a country possessing such a preponderance of power to be met with fear and suspicion, but remarkably, this is largely not the case. European leaders seem to regard American power much the way one reacts to the perennial failure of Columbia sports teams — a tolerable, if unpleasant, state of affairs, lacking an apparent alternative. In the rest of the world, US military power is used to underwrite security arrangements that influence the politics of every region of the globe and affect the lives of virtually every person on the planet. So why, then, have world leaders suddenly become so irate with the United States in recent months? We listened to their phone calls.

As Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande express their surprise and indignation at the betrayal of the mean, nasty, hypocritical Americans, one cannot help but wonder whether they secretly wish Edward Snowden had simply buried his head in the sands of Hawaii and left well enough alone. After all, they surely knew that the United States conducts intelligence operations in their countries, as they do in the United States. They were also aware of the US intelligence community’s reliance on signals intelligence—the interception and analysis of communications and electronic data. Even if they lacked concrete information about the extent of US surveillance, their intelligence agencies were surely aware of the technical capabilities of the United States, and therefore had little room for illusions about what the Americans might do with them. Given these basic realities, it is clear that Merkel and the others are not the victims of a breach of trust, but rather co-conspirators in a fiction that, it seems, must now be discarded.

It is now impossible to maintain that the United States and Europe are fully allies united in their global interests, unequal in power but in agreement on the basic outlines of world politics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the disappearance of the raison d’être for Atlanticism, a juggling act of shallow posturing and aimless policies (i.e. NATO expansion) was required to keep the status quo intact. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 might have been sufficient to bring the Atlanticist era to an end, yet even this transgression could be swept under the rug, thanks to the singularly-despised figure of George W. Bush. Instead, it was Barack Obama who put an end to the masquerade — the man on whom Europeans bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize simply because he was not the cowboy from Crawford (to be fair, Americans gave him the presidency for much the same reason). Barack Obama, who had been hailed by cheering crowds in the streets of European capitals and who had promised a more humble foreign policy; Barack Obama, commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in world history and the head of state of its only superpower —and that, not hacked phones, is the problem.

It is increasingly hard to see how European politicians can remain fully committed to both the trans-Atlantic alliance and the European Union. European integration may well continue into the future, if a strong German hand is there to guide it, but this process will be in tension with the foreign policy needs of the United States, which will increasingly look beyond what Donald Rumsfeld called, not without justification, “old Europe.” Meanwhile, given a choice between managing relations with their immediate neighbors and maintaining an alliance that seems (to them) to have lost its relevance, Europeans will likely choose the former. This is not to say Europe will be forgotten or become irrelevant. Instead, America’s relationships across the pond will simply become more transactional and handled on an increasingly ad hoc basis, without the attention and flattery to which European leaders have become accustomed. America’s love of foreign policy “doctrines” means that this shift away from Europe will be couched in overtly ideological terms. Given an amenable US president, this transition might take the form of a pivot to an invigorated Anglosphere. I like to imagine this as an Anglo-American Protestant counterpoint to the Catholicism of European integration (a cause now led, ironically enough, by an East German Lutheran), but this view does not seem to resonate with many. In any event, the United States may increasingly have to come to terms with a less pliant, more aloof Europe, one which will not be content to serve as token proof of internationalism for American wars for much longer, if ever again.

Thus, the sniveling embarrassment and feigned outrage of world leaders from Brasilia to Berlin should concern us less than the other implications of the Snowden affair. To wit, the stream of reports produced by Snowden’s release of classified information pertaining to US signals intelligence has underscored the reality of American power in the world today, and the ways in which that power is at odds with the interests and expectations of other states, including American allies. While one must be careful not to overstate the degree to which the Snowden leaks will impact the foreign policies of other countries, it does appear that there has been a qualitative shift in the way other nations view the intelligence activities of the United States.

Whether or not this change in perceptions results in concrete steps aimed at constraining US surveillance, via national governments, the European Union, or the United Nations, is not of particular concern because it is unlikely to appreciably change US policy. Instead, the critical issue is to determine how US foreign policy will be conceived and conducted vis à vis European allies that are resentful of American power and largely dismissive of American claims to “exceptionalism.” In other words, does the Snowden affair mark a qualitative break in relations between the United States and Europe, or will we eventually return to business as usual?

All of which brings me back to Colonel Mathieu and The Battle of Algiers. In asking his would-be interrogators if France should stay in Algeria, he exposes their hypocrisy: they condemn him (albeit in a roundabout way) for employing torture and other brutal tactics against Arab rebels, yet none dispute the idea that Algeria must remain in France. As his approach is inseparable from his results (though these ultimately prove temporary), he appears hauntingly unassailable. It falls to American policymakers to raise a similar question today: Should America remain in Europe? If the answer is still yes, then Europeans and Americans alike must accept all the consequences. American internationalism has historically been predicated upon a preponderance of American power. While paying lip service to multilateralism and conceding ground to its allies from time to time, the United States aspires to and expects international primacy. This inevitably riles the Europeans, who have tended to emphasize the rule of law over power politics, especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It has long been an open question whether or not it is possible to subordinate the United States to the letter of international law. At one time, Barack Obama seemed to believe that, through sheer power of personality, he could turn the tide against American jingoism, much as he aimed to halt the rise of the oceans. However, he has shown a remarkable ability to moderate his internationalism when confronted with specific problems—consider his approach to CIA air strikes, the bin Laden raid, and the prison camp at Guantanamo. Obama may be more subtle than George W. Bush, but his commitment to international law is questionable.

None of this should come as a surprise. The “liberal” international order is not based on a set of timeless legal principles, carried down from Mount Sinai. It is the product of historical processes. Since the Second World War, the United States has played a central role in establishing the norms and institutions that mitigate the anarchy of international politics. Not coincidentally, these very norms and institutions have generally encouraged deference to the United States on matters of security. In other words, far from being an order to which the United States might submit, it is a system which Americans have administered.

For a long time, the system worked — too long, in fact. Europeans became unmoored from the demands of making foreign policy, and Americans became accustomed to getting their way. On balance, material costs are of little concern to the United States, while Americans’ aversion to spending American lives has been mitigated somewhat by the use of force-multiplying technologies and the end of the draft. But, as we are now constantly reminded, the world has changed: “Capitalism has transformed the world, and new powers are rising,” and so on and so forth. International institutions now appear increasingly archaic, and the newly wealthy members of the developing world expect to translate economic success into political power.

A corollary to their desire for a seat at the table is a growing call for the United States to relinquish its claim (explicit during the Bush administration, implicit during the Obama administration) on the right to use force worldwide at any time it chooses (or, for that matter, to monitor and record all communications on the planet). Because the United States remains overwhelmingly more powerful than any other state, with a quarter of the world’s economic output and half of its military spending, these desires amount to little more than a polite request that the United States use its strength wisely and judiciously. But as other states around the world grow in power, desires will turn into demands, and when that happens, the United States will have its own Mathieu-like moment of reckoning.

Should America remain in Europe? It will certainly keep its military bases there, but it is not at all clear that it will remain actively engaged in the trans-Atlantic alliance. The demands of maintaining global primacy — the course to which the United States appears committed by default — will increasingly draw the attention of American policymakers away from Europe. The post-9/11 era has already amply demonstrated the limits of Atlanticism, and controversies like the Snowden affair — manufactured or not, disingenuous or not — only exacerbate problems in the relationship. The “pivot” to Asia, for example, has already shaken the faith of America’s allies; when you pivot away from someone, they tend not to appreciate it. They appreciate it even less when their loss of status is combined with public humiliation over their inability to detect or prevent highly intrusive surveillance measures by the same power that just pivoted away from them. Edward Snowden, the nerd who came in from the cold, has done his damage, and all that remains is for the United States to decide just how committed it is to repairing its relationships in Europe.

Historically, Americans have sought to avoid making choices of this kind, preferring instead to embrace an all-of-the-above approach that expands the options — and the power — available to US policymakers. But in an age of domestic political gridlock, budget constraints, and seemingly endless wars, the United States needs to relearn the art of strategy. If necessary, we must be prepared to alter or end foreign policy arrangements which no longer work and replace them with ones that do.