US National Security Agency

Obama needs to repair relations to continue fight against terrorism

Andrew Hammond says the US must act quickly to repair damaged diplomatic relations over spying allegations because it needs the support of allies to continue the fight against terrorism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 October, 2013, 3:03am

In a dramatic move, the influential chairwoman of the US Senate intelligence committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has called for a "total review of all US intelligence programmes". Feinstein's sweeping proposal got the partial support of Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, who supports a specific probe into alleged US spying on more than 30 foreign leaders by the National Security Agency (NSA).

The remarkably heated atmosphere in Washington is being fuelled by a steady stream of accusations - some of them disputed by US intelligence officials; many are from former US government contractor Edward Snowden. In response, it is reported that President Barack Obama is considering a ban on the practice of spying on foreign leaders, among other reforms.

Inevitably, the allegations - whether they are true or not - have strained US relationships right across the world. And the resulting international furore has prompted the first stirrings of a coherent and co-ordinated response.

Washington must redouble its efforts to win the battle for international ‘hearts and minds’

For instance, German and Brazilian diplomats have reportedly begun drafting a UN General Assembly resolution calling for extending the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to internet activities. Moreover, at last Friday's European Summit, German and French Presidents Angela Merkel and François Hollande agreed to lead efforts to get the NSA to sign a new code of conduct on how it performs its intelligence activities.

The concern expressed by world leaders is not just about privacy, but also that the US-led "campaign against terrorism" is being undermined by disclosures about the alleged extent of the NSA's surveillance activity.

Debate will long continue about the rights and wrongs of the Snowden leaks. What is without question, however, is that they have, regrettably, caused damage to the US and its leading intelligence-sharing allies, principally Britain.

A fundamental question underlying the Snowden and earlier WikiLeaks affairs is what they reveal about the changing map of influence and power in a world that continues to be transformed by economic globalisation and the information revolution, including the rise of "big data" enabled by digital technology.

To date, these forces have generally reinforced US international pre-eminence for several reasons, including the country's relative technological edge over much of the rest of the world (though this advantage will decrease over time) and because its multiple channels of communication help to frame global issues.

However, this emerging environment has simultaneously raised new challenges, and not just for the US. For instance, the potential for major leaks, and vast increases in diverse, open source information for the general public, has fuelled scepticism of government information and actions.

Indeed, governments increasingly compete for international credibility not just with their foreign counterparts, but also new players such as media outlets, and sometimes even prominent individuals like Snowden. Sensitive leaks, and information that is perceived to be manipulated or propaganda, can undermine the credibility of a country and its government.

Thus, NSA head General Keith Alexander asserts that international reports are "completely false" that data has been collected directly by Washington from phone calls of millions of European citizens. Instead "it represents information that we and our Nato allies have collected in defence of our countries and in support of military operations".

Key dangers for Washington are not just foreign allies like Brazil, Germany and France proving more cautious in sharing information and co-operation going forward, but also a potential major backlash from the international public.

The Snowden affair intensifies the global diplomatic challenge that Obama faces. While he is still quite popular personally in many countries, international favourability towards the US and its policies appears to be moving in reverse.

Between 2009, the first year of Obama's presidency, and 2013, a Pew Global survey of 22 countries found that the approval rating of US international policies fell by around 20 percentage points or more in six countries, including China, Indonesia, Argentina and Egypt. In many other countries, including Canada, Russia, Britain and Japan, the fall-off is over 10 percentage points over the same period.

America's use of drone strikes on suspected terrorist is particularly unpopular internationally.

It is important that the Obama team begins to turn this opinion around. This is because, in common with the cold war, the challenges posed by the campaign against terrorism cannot be overcome by military might alone.

Washington must redouble its efforts to win the battle for international "hearts and minds". This will help create an enabling environment facilitating both covert and overt co-operation and information sharing with US officials.

To be sure, some countries will continue to assist Washington because of factors such as self-interest or fundamental agreement with US strategy and policy. However, the degree to which other states do so, especially in crucial theatres like the Middle East and Asia, will often depend heavily upon the mood of the foreign public and the degree of trust and support of the US in general, and the Obama administration in particular.

It would be a tragedy if these relationships become critically damaged by the Snowden affair.

Andrew Hammond was formerly a special adviser in the UK government, and a geopolitics analyst at Oxford Analytica