2 July 2013
Xenia Wickett
Xenia Wickett
Former Head, US and the Americas Programme; Former Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


According to the latest revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US has targeted at least 38 embassies and missions in New York, Washington and Brussels, including that of the EU and at the UN, for surveillance. 

The European response to this revelation has been vociferous. Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament, called it ‘a huge scandal’ and both the German and French governments have voiced outrage that the US would target such close allies. They suggested that if the allegations turn out to be true, there will be significant implications for the trade talks between the EU and US – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – that are due to start next week. 

However, it is worth questioning whether Snowden’s actions and the revelations they have led to will have such foreign policy consequences for America’s bilateral relations, not just with Europe but beyond.

US-EU relations and TTIP

Despite heavy condemnation by the Europeans, the implications of the intelligence operation for the TTIP are likely to be minimal. As US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated, all states conduct operations such as these (if their resources allow). Gathering information to support national security is day-to-day business. Thus, it should come as no surprise to European leaders that this is taking place; they are doing it too. The outcry is merely politics.

But the economic benefits of TTIP are too great to ignore, in particular for Europe given its slow recovery from the recession. According to the European Commission, the value to Europe of a fully-implemented treaty could be as much as an increase of 0.5% of GDP. In addition to this are the benefits of creating new norms and regulations that the rest of the world would have to live by – a strong driver of US support for this partnership.

However, there will be consequences on some specific issues. A sensitive area concerns the disparity between America and Europe’s attitudes over privacy, highlighted by the Snowden revelations. America is calling for more intelligence sharing and data transfer (such as during the negotiations over SWIFT on moving personal data to the US) while Europe wants to limit it. On issues such as this, the US is going to find itself in a weaker negotiating position than before the allegations of surveillance were made public.

US-China relations

The Snowden revelations are also likely to strengthen China's hand in casting the US as hypocritical when it chastises China over hacking. It puts the US on the back foot. However, there is a stark contrast between the diplomatic spying in which the US is allegedly engaging and the theft of hundreds of billions annually in intellectual property and industrial secrets that China conducts against dozens of countries and their businesses. 

While the US can be criticized for these latest revelations, the Chinese should not be allowed to use the exposé to draw attention away from their very real and disturbing abuses online. It is vital that those worried about China's rising rates of espionage and hacking make clear the distinction between the two and continue to push back on China's active industrial cyber-crime.

On the diplomatic front, Hong Kong's decision to let Snowden leave rather than apprehend him for extradition to the US, is unlikely to have any long-term consequences. Despite the strong remarks by John Kerry at the time, both sides have made efforts to minimize any fall-out.

US-Russia relations

The status of Snowden himself, stuck in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after arriving June 23 from Hong Kong, may prove temporarily troublesome for US-Russia relations. 

President Putin has made it clear that Russia has no desire to give Snowden asylum unless he agreed to stop leaking secret documents (Snowden subsequently withdrew his request). This has been the position of many other governments to whom Snowden has reached out in recent days. Unless Russia can find a way for him to move on, they are stuck with the diplomatic challenge of what to do with him that doesn't, needlessly, antagonize America but also doesn't appear to be hewing to the US government’s line.

It is clear that both Russia and the US are making efforts to ensure that the Snowden case does not become a diplomatic obstacle between the two nations – there are too many other, more important, issues on the agenda including Syria and Iran. However, finding a way out will be difficult.

Broader repercussions

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, all governments involved are trying hard to ensure that revelations about America's intelligence network do not have major implications for bilateral relations. But there could be at least one notable consequence. Perceptions of the US and international public support for the US – factors that, among others combine to make up America’s soft power – have largely been falling since the highs of President Obama’s election in 2008. While this was inevitable on some level as expectations were unrealistic, the spying revelations weaken America’s moral position and undermine trust. 

A large part of America’s power has come not from its military or economic strength, but from the perception that while America might do the wrong thing, it will do so for the right reasons. Revelations such as these weaken that belief. 

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