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Strategic Impacts of the ‘Snowden Incident’ on International Relations

Sep 09 , 2013

Although the fireworks ignited by the “Snowden incident” have dimmed, its strategic impacts on international relations are only beginning to be felt. The incident is affecting the game theory among the world’s four leading powers of the US, China, Russia and European Union and leftwing forces in Latin America, involving state and non-state entities operating in cyber-space as well as the real world and reflecting a new characteristic of today’s multi-national politics. Due to the incident, three injuries have been inflicted on the US. 

First, it has seriously hurt the international image of America and somewhat weakened its “soft strength”. Secret operations such as “PRISM” have exposed the US double-standard on Internet security and online privacy, and proved beyond reasonable doubt the US hypocrisy over human rights, anti-terrorism and moral leadership. It also demonstrates how easy it is for the US not to match its own words with appropriate action and how porous its intelligence out-sourcing system is. There is no doubt the US will review its entire cyber-snooping system and make whatever improvement necessary. 

Just two years after WikiLeaks put thousands of classified telecommunications between Washington and US diplomatic missions around the world under the sun, the “Snowden incident” brought more of Washington’s dark secrets into public view. Dealing such a heavy blow to the no-holds-barred global electronic surveillance franchise, the damage to US intelligence setup could be comparable to that of “9/11″ to national security. 

The firm that hired Snowden as an analyst, Booz Allen Hamilton, is a major contractor in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) enormous telecom and Internet surveillance program. The NSA has out-sourced a lot of its intelligence science and technology operations since “9/11″. There are so many contractors, whose employees come from many different backgrounds, it is almost impossible for the NSA to maintain effective control. Now that the “Snowden incident” has happened, the US intelligence out-sourcing and probably the whole intelligence juggernaut is due for an overhaul. 

Yet another injury is found in the US security and foreign strategy, as intelligence agencies reported after the “Snowden incident” the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization already changed the ways its operatives communicate in response to Snowden’s exposes, making it more difficult for the US to track them down. 

Second, the incident has further complicated the game theory between old and emerging major powers. The first complication triggered by the “Snowden incident” is growing suspicion between the European Union (EU) and the US that is expected to slow down the “renewal” of the western alliance. The secret US intelligence blowout was exposed when the western allies were about to begin negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) Agreement. This is supposed to be an opportunity for the two sides to reinforce their alliance in the face of what they perceive as challenges posed by emerging powers. Too bad it came to light at the most unlikely moment that the US had been eavesdropping on its European allies and especially the bigger ones such as Germany on a massive scale. With mutual confidence between the US and EU obviously hurt, Washington will have a harder time maintaining control as EU states are now more motivated to resist. The difference between the two sides over whether online freedom is more important than cyber security or the other way around is now more pronounced as well, adding another crack in the cross-Atlantic alliance and one more hurdle for its efforts to join hands in rebuilding and taking charge of setting new international trade rules. 

The next complication is the intensifying rivalry between western major powers and rising nations. An example of this can be found in the testy relations between the US and Russia. Washington expressed “extreme disappointment” when Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum and retaliated on August 7 abruptly by announcing a planned meeting between President Obama and President Putin during the upcoming G20 summit in early September has been canceled, sending the already lukewarm bilateral ties to a new low. The structural contradiction between the US and Russia is showing no sign of mellowing in the near future, suggesting the Putin government will continue engaging the US in strategic wrestling for some time to come. 

Another example lies in South America, which the US sees as its “backyard”. The confrontational relations between Washington and leftwing Latin American governments immediately turned more hostile when US interception and pilfering of private phone calls and Internet communications among citizens and businesses of those Latin American nations was exposed. Brazilian President Rousseff slammed US “wanton trampling on Brazil’s sovereignty and its citizens’ human rights” and pledged no tolerance for such meddling in Brazil’s or any other sovereign nation’s affairs. Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua also took a swipe at US bullying by offering Snowden political asylum.

The animosity then claimed a “surprise” victim in relations between the EU and these Latin American nations when France, Portugal, Italy and Spain, under US pressure, refused Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane entry into their respective airspace, because Washington said Snowden might be onboard the Bolivian presidential jet. The show of sheer arrogance and intimidation was met with widespread uproar across Latin America. 

The incident also convinced nations around the world that online information security is now more vital than ever and will leave a profound impact on the way governments manage national affairs in the Internet era and efforts to set new international rules. The US online hegemony is so ubiquitous other countries have no choice but to do whatever possible to improve their own information security, such as “quarantining” American systems and stepping up migration to indigenous software. 

On the other hand, governments find themselves struggling to balance national security, fighting terrorism and protecting the privacy and individual freedoms of their citizens. Rising nations are particularly challenged by the need to defend themselves against infiltration and subversion by foreign powers and threat to social stability posed by out-of-control information explosion from within. 

The rivalry among major powers in cyber space has gone up a notch following the “Snowden Incident” while competition intensifies over cyber space discipline. Given its wide use in people’s daily life and growing role in national security, cyber space has become the most important of four “public spaces” in the world today. The contradiction between domination by the only “superpower” and efforts by multiple “lesser powers” to counter US domination is deepening as offensive and defensive moves increase in cyber space, making the need for Internet “traffic rules” more pressing everyday and bargaining among all sides concerned more intense than ever. 

Last but not the least, the “Snowden incident” proves Web-based “non-state entities” have become a significant variant in the global power equation. The WWW is now such a handy means to scramble and rearrange the international “power pattern”, individual “lone rangers”, international media and non-government organizations can challenge the dominant hegemon in cyber space and embarrass it spectacularly. This ability is making their roles in affecting international relations more diverse and stronger. As a matter of fact, non-state entities are becoming more and more capable despite their small “size” and a force to be reckoned with in the ever shifting international strategic layout thanks to the Internet. 

Chen Xiangyang is Deputy Director of the Institute of World Political Science under the Chinese Academy of Contemporary International Relations.

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