Foreign Policy Blogs

Transatlantic Snooping – National versus transatlantic interests

Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa +++(c) dpa – Bildfunk+++

The snowball effect of the Snowden revelations is finally picking up. Between the revelations of the National Security Agency eavesdropping on Merkel’s cellphone and massive collection of European citizens’ emails and phone calls (as demonstrated by the illustration below), Europeans are furious and have been asking questions to a reluctant Obama administration. US Secretary of State, Kerry, has been traveling throughout Europe in order to meet with European leaders. These meetings are irrelevant until President Obama publicly addresses the issue.

Surveillance of Europe

The repercussions of the Snowden revelations are progressively increasing within the transatlantic community. The latest impact was the allegations of Merkel’s cellphone tapping since 2002. Since then German Chancellor Merkel has been furious about such revelations. A segment of US press has been focusing on the single question: Did Presidents Bush and Obama know about such decision? According to former German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany feels that the US has not properly dealt with the matter from a diplomatic angle. From a German standpoint, Angela Merkel is talking of ‘loss of trust’ and the US has not addressed such concern through public channels.

For several weeks, one of the most influential French newspaper, Le Monde, has been publishing deep analyses on American snooping against its European allies. Between December 10th, 2012 and January 8th, 2013 the NSA had collected approximately 62.5 million data from phone calls in less than a month. Spain has as well been targeted with over 50 millions. But exactly what can the NSA or other intelligence services get from this amount of information? Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post asked the following question: If you were tapping Chancellor Merkel’s cellphone, what would you learn? The response “Not much” as she is mostly an adept of texting rather than talking. Hopefully, the Americans got more than that since listening to her conversations since 2002. From an American standpoint, listening to Merkel’s phone is perceived as of considerable importance considering the tumultuous decade in Europe. Knowing what would Germany’s position on the Libyan mission – which it did not participate and may have blocked a NATO campaign –, the handling of the Greek and Eurocrisis, the TTIP, and other issues like Russia, falls certainly under American national interests.

However, the consequences of getting caught in the cookie jar have been costly. For instance, Merkel expressed during a EU summit in Brussels last week that “Spying between friends, that’s just not done” and that “Now trust has to be rebuilt.” The German Chancellor even said through her spokesperson that “The monitoring of friends — this is unacceptable, it can’t be tolerated. We’re no longer in the Cold War.” From Merkel’s point of view, she has not been overreacting. She values privacy as she grew up in Eastern Germany. The comparison between the NSA and Stasy may certainly be extreme.

The recent discussion between former CIA and NSA chief, Michael Hayden, and Fareed Zakaria on his show on CNN offers the story from the side of the American intelligence community:

In the US, the most conservative branch of the Republican party is actually expressing the fact that Europeans should be thankful as the US is keeping them safe. Such argument does not hold ground in Europe. How would the same elected official react if the French intelligence service were to conduct similar metadata collection on American citizens and bug Obama’s cell phone? Such statements are only good for short-term domestic support, but only contribute to widening the gap with American allies.

However, as argued by former French top diplomat, Bernard Kouchner during a radio interview: “The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us. Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.” Certainly allies and enemies spy on each other, however, the rules of the game are simple: don’t get caught. The US did and is now trying to adjust its way to conduct its foreign intelligence.

The excellent illustration, see below, developed by the Washington Post clearly demonstrates the way the NSA has been penetrating private networks. It appears that the NSA has infiltrated private companies, such as Google, in order to access private data.

Washington Post; SOURCE: Staff reports; Google,

Source: Washington Post; Staff reports; Google,

Obviously, Snowden is not fading away as it may have seemed back in August when he received asylum in Russia. Edward Snowden did lose some of his credibility, but has considerably regained some since several European and American newspapers have have the time to decorticate all the documents leaked. In a recent article published by Der Spiegel, Edward Snowden has expressed that “he would ‘cooperate in the responsible finding of fact’ with regard to the ‘truth and authenticity’ of the documents he has leaked.” Snowden even met with Hans-Christian Ströbele, German Green Party lawmaker, in a secret meeting in Moscow last week. The Obama administration is still trying to bring Snowden back to the US, wherein he would face the American justice. Having Snowden working with the German government could have serious consequences on the transatlantic relations.

In a recent article published by the excellent ECFR, Mark Leonard argues that the consequences of these revelations will in fact create a greater diplomatic crisis between the two sides of the pond than the 2003 Iraq war. In order to reflect to the actual diplomatic consequences of these revelations, several policy outcomes need to be taken into consideration and reflected upon:

First, what is next for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), or the transatlantic free-trade agreement? Voices in Europe have been calling for a pause or even the end in the negotiations over the TTIP. Doubtless, the TTIP would transform the Euro-Atlantic community into the largest free-trade area in the world. During a conference in Washington, Vice-President Viviane Reding talked about the challenges ahead in dealing with the TTIP – data and the protection of personal data – and argued that “Data protection is not a red tape or a tariff. It is a fundamental right and as such it is not negotiable.” However, in order to have a clear line on data protection and privacy, the EU first needs comprehensive data protection regulations. This will make the negotiation of the TTIP even more complex. But, aborting the TTIP would not only disfavor Europe and the US – even though some have argued that the TTIP is an assault to democracy -, but make China and Russia very happy. A transatlantic economic area would certainly overshadow China’s influence over Europe and globally.

Second, what is the future of the American model of open internet? Le Monde published an op-ed titled, Fighting ‘Big Brother’, wherein the concept of freedom is seriously advanced. The authors declared that “There is no intention to threaten the security of the United States or their allies, but rather to shed light on secret espionage programmes carried out by a democratic country, whether these concern its own citizens or those of allied countries.” But the reference to Orwell’s masterpiece is not far-fetched. Core ethical and legal questions should finally be addressed concerning privacy, freedom, and cyber-rights. If this can’t be done at the international level, a transatlantic approach may be an important stepping-stone.

Third, the Obama administration has really demonstrated its uneasiness in dealing with Europeans diplomatically. Since his election in 2007, Obama has been trying to shift American foreign policy to Asia, and even refers to America as a ‘Pacific power.’ For long Europeans have felt left alone. In addition to a lack of commonality between Obama and the Europeans, Obama has been making serious foreign policy mistakes. For instance, Syria was at first a serious diplomatic fiasco for the Obama administration until Russian President Putin came to its rescue . Now, the handling of the revelations has been in the hands of top diplomats in Europe and the Secretary of State. So far Obama has remained publicly quiet.

Last, but not least, these Snowden revelations come at a great time, politically speaking, for Europeans. The blame game has kicked in and was needed for some European governments in order to boost their domestic credibility. Blaming the US, or at least an identified enemy, is always a successful strategy for weak leaders. In an excellent op-ed, Bartosz T. Weilinski called on European hypocrisy when writing “European intelligence agencies do not sit idly watching as the NSA hacks the Internet, but are instead doing exactly the same and using similar means.” Especially when French and British intelligence services have apparently been involved in the snooping by providing the metadata to the Americans. In the case of France, President Hollande is unable to change the national course of actions and is facing serious internal and domestic crises affecting his credibility. Even the Financial Times ran an editorial titled “François Hollande, a hapless president.” This may divert the French public opinion for some time.

So where does that leave the transatlantic community? “Trust among allies has eroded to the extent” argues Judy Dempsey, “that it might finally dawn on both Europeans and Americans not that the old transatlantic relationship is in need of fixing—but that it is over.” From a less pessimistic angle and based on the famous say by General De Gaulle, Josef Joffe writes that “states – soulless and bloodless institutions – are never friends. People are.” Since end of World War two, the transatlantic community may have thought, at least in Europe, to be part of a family. Maybe it is just time to seek for the development of a transatlantic society of states.



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.