Washington’s foreign policy these days is less about putting pressure on old adversaries than mending fences with key allies. First in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are bewildered by US policy zigzags over Syria and Egypt, and disconcerted by a possible thaw between the US and Iran. And now even closer to home in Europe, where the revelations of massive wiretapping by the National Security Agency have angered France and Germany.
The outrage in Paris and Berlin is tinged by theatrics and hypocrisy. Since time immemorial, if governments have been able to spy, they have spied – even on friends. Not only the US does it: France does it, Britain does it, and so, doubtless, does Germany.
Even in the most egregious instance, the alleged eavesdropping by the agency on the personal mobile phone of Angela Merkel, all that is different is the technology. And, it should be added, a spot of America-bashing has never done a French leader much harm.
But the brouhaha is very damaging nonetheless. President Obama’s election was welcomed in Europe as a sign of a less arrogant America, one readier to listen. But not to listen this way.
Instead nothing really seems to have changed since the days of the much-reviled George Bush. Trust between allies has been shaken, at a very delicate moment. And judging by reactions in Washington, the Obama administration has no inclination to rein in the runaway beast that is the NSA.
Yes, Europe and the US will weather this spat. Ties run too deep, and too much is at stake for both sides, not least a massive transatlantic trade deal. But it is a costly distraction. The priority for the US, France and Germany should be getting their policy right over Iran, Syria and Egypt, not getting bogged down in a dispute over electronic snooping.