Is U.S. Power Weakened by NSA Spying ?

Last week, Duke Professor of Public Policy and Political Science Bruce Jentleson held his first Google Hangout with the students of his 21st Century American Foreign Policy online course —a MOOC (Massive Open Online Class) run through the Coursera consortium that kicked off on October 20.

As part of the wide ranging Q&A session with his students — there are more than 20,000 enrolled — he was asked how the U.S. could maintain some semblance of power in the wake of so many countries criticizing the U.S. over the Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of NSA spying.

Here was Professor Jentleson’s response:

Let’s look at it from Brazil’s perspective and Germany’s perspective. In Germany you have not just the notion that the United States was doing some spying, but was actually tapping the phone of the head of the government. That’s a whole different magnitude than saying countries involved in things like trade negotiations spy on each other to gather economic data. Moreover, who’s the Chancellor of Germany — Angela Merkel — who grew up in East Germany, in a country, in a culture where espionage was everywhere, and she became the first leader of unified Germany who came from East Germany. So you can imagine for her, given what she’s gone through in her life, that this takes on a deeper significance than it would for another individual, and for Germany as a society that’s gone through all the things that it has.

What it says to the United States and I think it’s the right thing to say to the United States is:  “Look, we want to cooperate but you cannot justify all measures simply in the name of stopping terrorism.”  That’s an open-ended justification that becomes a rationale for everything. You really need to think about what kind of information you need, including through wiretapping, and what kind of information really crosses the line in the way it violates the rights of others.

I think what we’ve been doing is using the counter-terrorism reaction to 9/11 as a rationale for the ends justify the means. And I think that’s very dangerous for us, because at the end of the day it weakens our power. It weakens the willingness of other countries to share information with us. It weakens the sense that we have shared objectives.

Similarly with Brazil. The president of Brazil now — Dilma Rousseff — is someone who in the late 1960s and early 1970s was actually a radical and she was involved in some urban guerilla violence in protest against the military government that the United States had helped install in Brazil in 1964, not because they had a communist government but because they had a government that was a little bit socialist and nationalist. And we basically said that we want a government that’s totally friendly to the United States. In 1970 the current president of Brazil was arrested as a political prisoner and tortured by a military government that was sponsored by the United States. So here she is, the president of a free Brazil, elected in a free election, and she’s having her phones tapped.

For those two leaders in particular (of Germany and Brazil), and it’s also true for other leaders, you can see the additional meaning it has for people that have had the life experiences that they’ve had. So I think for the United States it very much has to be a situation in which we say that we need partners in the world and we have some shared interests but we have to exercise the kind of leadership that’s about partnership, and not just trying to tell others that we are always right or to do what we want to do.

I think the real question for us is: “If we want countries to work with us, how much are we prepared to interfere in their internal affairs?” They can say the same thing about us. We have various homegrown terrorists in the U.S.  Do we want them tapping President Obama’s phone? Or Senator McConnell’s phone?

In today’s world, the 21st Century, you really have to think about it as a two-way street, and it’s not even just a question of values and principles. It’s a very pragmatic power question. If you want countries to work with you, you really need to have partnerships where you don’t think you can treat them in ways that only you determine. It just backfires.

Bruce Jentleson is professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. His areas of expertise include Middle East peace and security, international conflict prevention, global governance, international security, and U.S. foreign policy. This commentary was orginally published at ISLAMiCommentary.