Foreign Policy Blogs

Walling off the internet: how should the U.S. respond?


Angela Merkel wants to wall off European data from the NSA.  If ever there was evidence of dysfunction in the free world, this is it.  The technical foolhardiness of the idea, which the Financial Times noted in its report, makes the initiative more likely to launch a war of words than truly divide the internet.  But the desire portends the type of rift among Western allies that Walter Russell Mead warns about in the Wall Street Journal.

Too many allies – most precisely, the peoples of established liberal societies – now mistrust us.   Simply saying “sorry,” implementing procedures to limit NSA spying on allied leaders, or fashioning some multilateral protocol, is not enough.  We need to make tangible commitments that will restore the trust of our allies – that is to say, of their people.  We will likely have to accept constraints on our intelligence agencies’ freedom of action, to make our commitments credible.

The first problem for U.S. foreign policy credibility is that we do not so much as express a coherent picture of our own fundamental national interest.  In the past three administrations we have made high priorities of opening overseas markets, stopping others’ WMD programs, killing terrorists, protecting American firms’ patent rights, implementing democracy, and penalizing human rights abusers.  Barring no holds in pursuit, we frequently contradict ourselves, which leaves others to divine our national interest.

It thus comes as no surprise, for example, that the NSA has taken reports from Aussie intelligence about an American law firm, regarding Indonesian trade policy. “Ahh,” say our detractors, “America cares first about money and power.”

Our fundamental national interest is in freedom, in the protection and promotion of conditions that enable it, and in a freedom that is at least as personally felt and open-ended as our own, as soon as possible for all.  No protocols, procedures, and rules we draw up will carry credibility unless they fit a convincing expression of this national interest, and tie us to it, in all aspects of our international relations.

In this interest, we have a profoundly deep stake in the security of societies where freedom is well enshrined, affording their people broad discretion to explore life‘s possibilities.  Those countries happen to be our allies, in NATO, NORAD, ANZUS, and the U.S.-Japan Treaty. This freedom gives us a common culture, which should cement our alliances much more firmly than any convergence of institutional interests.  Political mistrust must not compromise this commonality; if we allow it, we suggest that free people only use freedom for their own advantages.

Trust is not defunct.  First off, there are levels of trust, even among these allies; Germany is not party to the “Five Eyes” arrangement that has entered the public discourse with the Snowden affair.  The five comprise the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as close a cultural grouping as America has.  Trust among this group may remain intact, but cannot be taken for granted.  Second, the reservoir, filled over decades of tribulations, is only partially drawn down; it is unlikely that any politicians in Europe or the U.S. could actually implement transatlantic Internet firewalls.  But a wound has been opened.

As a corollary to our national interest, the U.S. should declare our commitment to the security of our allies, and exclude commercial and other non-defense objectives from our intelligence efforts’ mission.  Any commercial or trade-related surveillance should be limited to cases where free societies are credibly at risk of armed, coercive, disruptive attacks.  Avoiding surveillance over trade issues would debunk the idea that we seek only to accumulate wealth.

We should announce a proposal to the Five Eyes community, in two parts: to agree that non-security surveillance is not a common interest of the five, and secondly, to consider and favor incorporation of new parties to the agreement, allies that exhibit the same depth of commitment to liberal freedom.  Germany might be one of the first new members.

Finally, U.S. policy should propose to re-base our alliances, on the basis of freedom and its support.  Alliance actions consistent with principle will bind us to the values we share with free people everywhere.  We advance all these proposals, even after Merkel’s interest in walling off the internet fades away.




George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.

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