Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware of the recent controversies surrounding the American National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Leaks by Edward Snowden revealed the extent of this electronic eavesdropping to the world.
The NSA’s domestic spying efforts were extensive. The agency gathered many millions of telephone records from phone and internet companies. Equally important, however, were the international efforts of the NSA. Snowden’s leaks eventually revealed that the USA was spying on foreign governments, Brazil prominent among them:
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday delivered a stinging rebuke of electronic espionage by the National Security Agency, telling a gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly that American eavesdropping constitutes “a breach of international law and an affront” to Brazil’s sovereignty.
America’s spying efforts pose a threat to democracy throughout the world, Rousseff said, as she proposed that the United Nations establish legal guidelines to prevent “cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war.” “Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy,” Rousseff said. And “without respect for [a nation’s] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations.”
The consequences of these efforts have started to surface just recently. First, American companies began to see serious hits to their bottom lines linked to fallout from the NSA leaks:
Cisco has shocked financial analysts — who were expecting healthy growth — by predicting a 10 percent sales slump during the current quarter. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the standout one is the backlash in emerging markets against the activities of the U.S. signals intelligence agency, the NSA.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Communications infrastructure is absolutely central to the surveillance scandal, and that’s Cisco’s business.
Then the US lost an arms deal worth many billions of dollars to the Swedes as a result of Brazilian mistrust:
Brazil awarded a $4.5 billion contract to Saab AB on Wednesday to replace its aging fleet of fighter jets, a surprise coup for the Swedish company after news of U.S. spying on Brazilians helped derail Boeing’s chances for the deal.
The contract, negotiated over the course of three presidencies, will supply Brazil’s air force with 36 new Gripen NG fighters by 2020. Aside from the cost of the jets themselves, the agreement is expected to generate billions of additional dollars in future supply and service contracts.
Until earlier this year, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet had been considered the front runner. But revelations of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency in Brazil, including personal communication by Rousseff, led Brazil to believe it could not trust a U.S. company.
“The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” a Brazilian government source said on condition of anonymity.
Americans aren’t the only ones beginning to distrust their government as a result of this scandal. The entire world is becoming deeply suspicious.
America’s status as the world’s lone superpower is indisputable. The United States Armed Forces by themselves account for 39% of the globe’s military expenditure, possess a navy larger than the next 13 biggest in the world combined by tonnage, and can field aircraft more advanced than anything the rest of the world’s nations could possibly throw at them right now.
America’s hegemony, however, is not solely dependent on all of that military might. Powerful as it is, the US relies heavily on a measure of trust and respect being maintained between itself and its allies, allies who are essential to ensuring that American foreign policy objectives are met and that American enemies are kept at bay. The US cannot simply fight (or threaten to fight) the rest of the planet; it has to cooperate with it to some significant degree.
By exposing to the world the fact that America itself does not trust or respect its closest allies enough to grant them privacy, Edward Snowden has forced a necessary humbling of the world’s lone superpower. The best option for the USA at this point is to diligently and humbly rebuild the reservoirs of positive diplomatic capital it once maintained with nations like Brazil that it cannot afford to be on bad terms with for extended periods of time. It would do this by taking its remarkable capacity for espionage (a natural by product of its status as the world’s lone superpower) and legitimately toning it down, granting its peers on the international stage the privacy and respect they actually deserve. Trust will be rebuilt if the US is emphatic about this effort and diligent in proving that such changes are being made.
Should America fail to humble itself in this way, other nations will do so by decreasing their patronage of American businesses and taking money away from the American economy, while simultaneously becoming more reluctant to serve American foreign policy objectives. Cisco and Boeing have already seen the consequences of this and we can be certain that there will be more to come.
When it comes to humbling the US economy in such a way, few single nations can make much progress to this end by themselves. Multiple global powers united by their distrust of the USA (and the USA’s distrust of them), however, can do plenty of harm. The USA cannot stand alone.