Independence Day Greetings to Edward Snowden

Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.

On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.

It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.

Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.

The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.

Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.


National Security

News Flash: States Spy on Each Other

The National Security Agency has done us all a service by reminding the world that international politics is still a) inherently competitive and b) primarily conducted by nation-states. I refer, of course, to the recent revelations that in addition to spying on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency (NSA) has also been spying on America's European allies. You know: our closest strategic partners!

Cue the old line from Casablanca ("I'm shocked, shocked…"). As former NSA head Michael Hayden retorted on a Sunday news show: "No. 1: The United States does conduct espionage.… No. 2: Our Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans' privacy, is not an international treaty. And No. 3: Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing."

Never mind that the Fourth Amendment isn't doing a great job of protecting Americans' privacy either. The broader point is that the NSA's activities in Europe provide a striking counter to the idealistic rhetoric about transatlantic solidarity that we been accustomed to hearing for the past 50 years or more. During the Cold War, both the United States and its European allies had good reasons to emphasize common political values and invoke phrases and symbols of an "Atlantic Community." Power politics was always the real reason for NATO and transatlantic cooperation, but feel-good rhetoric about how we were all in this together and part of a broader political community helped paper over differences about burden-sharing and disguise the degree to which the alliance was always dominated by the United States. Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the only prominent European leader who took serious issue with this conception, but even he never did anything that threatened the basic principles of this Atlantic order.

No, Virginia, we are not a "transatlantic community" in any meaningful sense of that term. It's not even clear if the European community is going to hold together in the future as it has in the recent past, given the travails of the eurozone and the residual power of nationalism throughout the continent. What we are is a set of national states whose interests align in many areas, but not everywhere. And that's also why various proposals for a global "League of Democracies" were always a bit silly: Sharing a democratic system is too weak a reed on which to rest a global alliance. Even democratic states experience conflicts of interest with each other, and as the NSA has now shown, they continue to see each other as competitors and spy on each other in order to seize various advantages.

So nobody should be surprised that the United States was using its superior technical capacity to try to gain an edge on its European partners, and you can be sure that America's European allies have been spying on the United States too, if not as extensively or as expensively.

What will it mean? One might expect Europeans to protest loudly -- if only to appease their offended publics -- but then revert to type and do little concrete in response. After all, America's European partners have a long history of deferring to Washington, and it's not entirely clear why anyone should expect them to grow a real backbone now. I can't quite see David Cameron, François Hollande, or even Angela Merkel doing anything really bold or confrontational, can you? And as Hayden suggests, it's not like they aren't doing similar things in their own fashion.

Which is not to say this aspect of the Snowden affair won't have significant consequences. Exposure of the NSA's efforts is bound to complicate efforts to negotiate a transatlantic trade and investment agreement, an initiative that faced plenty of obstacles already. It is also going to give ammunition to all those people who are worried about the globalization of information and who would like to see governments do more to protect privacy and limit both corporate and governmental data-collection. And that makes me wonder whether we are now at the high-water mark of loosely regulated global connectivity, and that all these revelations will eventually lead both democracies and authoritarian societies to place much stricter limits on how information flows between societies (and individuals).

If so, then you should probably enjoy the Wild West of Internet freedom while you can, before the firewalls go up.