The lives of others
European governments should not kick up a fuss about American spying. They have too much to lose
NOBODY likes to be spied on, especially by their allies, so it is hardly surprising that Europeans are angry about American espionage operations conducted against them, on their territory. These include spying on the European Union embassy in Washington, DC (with a bug in the fax machine), and on the governments of France, Germany and other countries, as well as the collection of large amounts of electronic data—in Germany’s case half a billion phone calls, e-mails and text messages every month. In a country where Gestapo and Stasi crimes still leave dark shadows, and privacy rights have near-religious significance, that causes outrage.
Many Europeans see in the disclosure further evidence of American arrogance and unaccountability—just another episode in a story that includes an illegal war in Iraq, drone strikes, “extraordinary rendition”, waterboarding and secret prisons. Some European politicians want a punitive response. One idea is to suspend agreements on sharing financial and other data between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Another is to halt talks on a big new transatlantic trade deal. A third is to offer asylum to Edward Snowden, the source of the leaks about his former employer, America’s National Security Agency. He is now marooned at a Moscow airport.
But any of these grandstanding approaches would be a mistake. One reason is hypocrisy. France has formidable foreign-intelligence services that spy on America, for economic and political advantage. Much of the intelligence that America gathers—especially in counter-terrorism—is shared with European countries. And much of the American activity in Europe happens in partnership with local agencies, even in Germany. Some of this co-operation may be of borderline legality in the countries concerned. Its disclosure may be embarrassing for politicians there. But that is hardly America’s fault.
A second reason is self-interest. America’s security umbrella allows European countries to feel safe from, for instance, the possibility of future Russian aggression while spending little on defence. But Europeans cannot take such protection for granted. In many American eyes, Europeans are already wobbly, tiresome free-riders who do not police their Islamist extremists properly, breach sanctions, flirt with dictatorships and leak secrets to the Russians and Chinese. America’s armed forces are already draining away from Europe because of Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and a shortage of cash. The last tanks left in April. A petulant European response to the spy row risks speeding the pull-out.
Europe also has most to gain from a transatlantic trade deal. It desperately needs the extra economic growth an agreement would bring (see article). America wants it too—but it is already enjoying a moderate economic revival of the sort the Europeans would kill for, and is also involved in negotiating a similar, transpacific pact, on which it can focus its efforts if the spying row makes dealing with the Europeans too difficult.
It won’t stop the snooping
Finally, there is the pointlessness of the threat. Even if European governments did cut intelligence links with the Americans, that would not stop the spying. America would continue to conduct operations against all but a handful of truly close allies, such as Canada and Britain. Better to work alongside the Americans, than to treat them as enemies.
None of this changes America’s need to discipline its spies for its own sake. As this newspaper made clear when the Snowden scandal broke, Americans need a much clearer idea of what is being done in their name. But Europe has most to lose from a transatlantic row. So why start one?