Tim Lee • News & Observer/MCT,

Why the U.S. keeps an ear on its allies

  • Article by: Max Fisher
  • Washington Post
  • October 30, 2013 - 6:33 PM


A week after the initial revelation that the United States may have monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there’s little doubt the story has damaged this country and the National Security Agency, which earned the wrath of even longtime defender Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who oversees it as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair. At the same time, though, the initial anger appears to be giving way to debate: Is it, in fact, a bad idea for the United States to spy on friendly foreign leaders such as Merkel?

That question might sound cynical, a sign of the depth of Americans’ hubris that we would even consider it. After all, friends don’t spy on each other, right? But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The international system is, and always has been, inherently adversarial, even among allies. To paraphrase the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston, countries don’t have friends, they have interests.

Spying on friendly foreign nations does not actually violate the standard practices of international relations. The close U.S. allies France and Israel are particularly known for it. Still, something as explicit as tapping Merkel’s cellphone is a legitimately surprising step, one that may well go too far. Here’s why the United States would decide to take such a step.

The simplest case for spying might be that the U.S. and Germany, despite being allies, still compete, sometimes on quite substantive issues. If spying can give them a leg up, aren’t their leaders obligated to sanction it? American interests and German interests conflict more than you might think.

In 2011, for example, President Obama wanted to intervene in Libya, but Merkel did not and could have used her substantial influence in Europe to reduce NATO’s participation. Washington and Berlin also have clashed over how to manage the eurozone crisis. If dropping in on Merkel’s phone calls can help the United States safeguard its economic and national security interests, that would seem to be a strong argument for doing so.

The case may be even starker with France, another major target of recently revealed NSA spying whose leaders have expressed official outrage. It’s easy to forget today that in the 1960s, France made several provocative breaks with the American ally that had liberated its capital two decades earlier. President Charles de Gaulle refused to cooperate on nuclear weapons with the United States, announcing a nuclear strategy of “defense in all directions.” He vetoed Britain’s entry into the European economic partnership, which the United States supported. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, de Gaulle even tried to persuade West Germany to loosen ties with NATO, which could have changed the course of the Cold War. Those were phone calls the United States would have been well-served by monitoring.

More U.S. spying on France may have again been useful in 1985, when New Zealand arrested two French agents caught sinking a Greenpeace ship that was set to interfere with some French nuclear tests. The United States was sucked into the incident but equivocated, perhaps believing Paris’s initial claim that the French government hadn’t been involved. As a result of the imbroglio, U.S. nuclear warships are still not permitted to dock in New Zealand. Who knows how it might have gone if the U.S. had better intelligence on its French ally?

To be sure, the U.S.-French relationship is closer now than it was. Still, the yo-yoing alliance is a reminder that, even if Obama and French President François Hollande are buddy-buddy today, that can change quickly.

Yet there’s something different about heads of state. There are real diplomatic ramifications to targeting them. Foreign militaries and intelligence agencies cannot have their pride offended by U.S. snooping because they are emotionless agencies, run by people who engage in these sorts of activities themselves and surely expect them. Merkel and Obama are also human beings; that they develop a sense of mutual trust and respect is important for their ability to cooperate. Even if spying on Merkel can help further U.S. interests, the revelation has clearly offended her personally in ways that could set those interests back. And all the negative attention is certainly hurting the United States’ image in the eyes of German voters.

Maybe most illuminating is Merkel’s response, demanding that U.S. tech companies be required to notify European officials every time the United States files a warrant seeking information on a European customer, which could hamper U.S. intelligence efforts significantly. She has also suggested that the United States and Germany simply sign an agreement not to spy on one another — which would finally level the playing field between their respective intelligence agencies, long dominated by the U.S. Some analysts suspect this may be the real motive behind the outrage, as Richard McGregor and Geoff Dyer write in the Financial Times. If you can’t beat your American counterparts at the intelligence game, just find a way to stop playing.

“Frau Merkel has been listened to since she was a teenager,” Frederick Forsyth, a novelist and former Berlin-based correspondent told Reuters. “The only thing that amazes me about the furor is that it amazes people.”

A former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, also suggested the European outrage may be less about the spying crossing any moral line and more about the extent of the United States’ intelligence dominance. “Let’s be honest: We eavesdrop, too,” he told a French radio station. “Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”

All this is at least a reminder that the international system is driven more by cutthroat self-interest, and less by principles of fairness and friendliness, than its leaders often suggest.

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