Here’s looking at you: Why America spies on its allies (and probably should)
By MAX FISHER — The Washington Post
A week now after the initial revelation that the United States might have monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there’s little doubt that the story has been damaging for this country and for the National Security Agency, which earned the wrath of even longtime defender Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who oversees it as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair. At the same time, though, the initial anger appears to be giving way to debate: Is it, in fact, a bad idea for the United States to spy on friendly foreign leaders such as Merkel? That question might sound counterintuitive, even cynical, a sign of the depth of Americans’ hubris that we would even consider it. After all, friends don’t spy on each other, right? But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The international system is, and always has been, inherently adversarial, even among allies. To paraphrase the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston, countries don’t have friends, they have interests. Spying on friendly foreign nations does not actually violate the standard practices of international relations and in many ways is consistent with those norms. The close U.S. allies France and Israel are particularly known for it. Still, something as explicit as tapping Merkel’s cellphone is a big and legitimately surprising step, one that may well go too far.
Here is an evaluation of the pros and cons involved that might help clarify why the United States would decide to take such a step. The simplest case for spying might be that the United States and Germany, despite being allies, still compete with one another, sometimes on quite substantive issues. If spying can give them a leg up on those issues, then aren’t their leaders obligated to sanction it? President Barack Obama’s job, after all, is to further American interests, Merkel’s to further German interests. Those conflict more than you might think; when they do, both leaders are potentially better served if they spy on the other.
In 2011, for example, Obama wanted to intervene in Libya, but Merkel did not and could have used her substantial influence in Europe to reduce NATO’s participation. Ultimately, Germany was alone among Western nations in opposing the U.N. resolution on Libya and nearly alone in not providing military resources for the intervention. Merkel ended up coming under political pressure at home for the move. Washington and Berlin have also clashed over how to manage the euro-zone crisis, the resolution and progress of which have far-reaching implications for the German and U.S. economies. If dropping in on Merkel’s phone calls can help the United States safeguard its economic and national security interests, that would seem to be a strong argument for doing so.
The case may be even starker with France, another major target of recently revealed NSA spying whose leaders have expressed official outrage at the surveillance.
It’s easy to forget today that in the 1960s, France made several provocative breaks with the American ally that had liberated its capital just two decades earlier. President Charles de Gaulle refused to cooperate on nuclear weapons with the United States, announcing a nuclear strategy of “defense in all directions” that was apparently intended to imply his willingness to use them against the Americans. He vetoed Britain’s entry into the European economic partnership that later developed into the European Union, which the United States had supported. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, de Gaulle even tried to persuade the leader of West Germany to loosen his ties with NATO, which would have seriously undermined the U.S.-led coalition and could have changed the course of the Cold War. Surely those were phone calls the United States would have been well-served by monitoring.
More U.S. spying on France may have again been useful in 1985, when New Zealand arrested two French agents caught sinking a Greenpeace ship that was set to interfere with some French nuclear tests. The United States was sucked into the incident but equivocated, perhaps believing Paris’s initial claim that the French government hadn’t been involved.
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