These are grim times for American diplomacy and also for the country’s international standing. Washington’s policy in the Middle East is a muddle that dismays its friends in the region. The row over the electronic spying on foreign governments and leaders, with not a visible sign of remorse, suggests an intelligence apparatus out of control and an uncaring arrogance on the part of those supposedly in charge of it.
Throw in a ridiculous government shutdown and a narrowly averted debt default, and you have a country that contrives to look feckless and vacillating, politically dysfunctional and morally duplicitous, all at once. Not exactly the ideal visiting-card for the superpower that, despite everything, in many respects remains the “indispensable nation” on the world’s stage.
Of these issues, the controversy over the National Security Agency’s snooping on billions of phone calls and electronic communications overseas, as revealed by the documents provided by Edward Snowden, is both the least serious and also the most worrying – and not merely because one of the targets of the runaway programme appears to have been the personal mobile of the leader of Germany, the economic powerhouse of the European end of the Atlantic alliance.
The row over spying is the least serious of America’s many issues, it may be argued, because espionage is, like it nor not, a fact of life. Every government with the wherewithal indulges in it, and always has. The behaviour of the NSA is not new, only the technology. Yes, Angela Merkel’s anger, stemming from personal memories of the Stasi in the former East Germany, is amply justified. But the outrage in Paris has a somewhat synthetic and hypocritical ring, given what is known about the activities of French intelligence. The silence of the British authorities meanwhile is more eloquent than words.
What is more worrying is the damage to the trust in America among many of its oldest and most important allies. Transatlantic ties will survive, both because of history and because too much is at stake: negotiations over a sweeping and mutually beneficial trade pact, co-operation in fighting terrorism, and the need for a coherent Western policy on the world’s troublespots will all go on as before.
The US/European partnership embodied in Nato may be in relative decline in a changing world, but it is still the most effective and powerful of all international alliances. It is vital, therefore, that the poison of the spying row be purged from the system by a cast-iron agreement between the US and the EU, setting parameters for internet privacy and banning such indiscriminate foreign data trawling.
There might have been more of an excuse for the proliferating operations of the NSA – 30 or more foreign leaders are said to have been given the Merkel treatment – had they been instrumental in Washington bringing off some diplomatic masterstroke. To put it mildly, that has not been the case.
When it comes to more public diplomacy, the US is also floundering. After the wars of the last decade, President Obama’s desire to keep the US out of sapping conflicts in the Middle East is understandable. But the recent policy zigzags over Syria, Egypt and Iran have merely confused and upset Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other key allies, with no obvious gains. Separately, Brazil’s President cancelled a visit to Washington, planned for this week, out of anger at NSA snooping. So much for a new chapter in relations between the US and Latin America’s most powerful economy. The government shutdown also forced Mr Obama to skip this month’s APEC meeting in Indonesia – so much too for the vaunted “pivot to Asia”.
In the meantime, as the Snowden revelations continue, America’s diplomats must spend their time explaining away the past, instead of focusing on the future. That is no way to run a superpower.