The spying show must go on

The game of accusations, declarations, rebuttals and apologies related to U.S. spying went on unabated on Halloween. In continental Europe, German lawmaker met with whistleblower Edward Snowden, who told him that he hopes the U.S. will put and end to its ‘harmful behavior’. On the other side of the Atlantic, NSA director General Keith Alexander blamed U.S. diplomats for requesting to place foreign leaders under surveillance.

Almost simultaneously, videoconferencing for an event organized by the Open Government Partnership, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that NSA spying had gone too far and pledged to work with President Obama to ensure that ‘nobody will have the sense of abuse’ in the future, while also defending U.S. surveillance practices for their crucial role in tackling terrorism, and simultaneously pledged.

How can we make sense of this mess? Jan Techau, of Carnegie Europe, gives us a hand when he calls for Germany to stop its ‘harsh and emotional’ criticism of the U.S. – and, implicitly, of its European partners in the spying game, including the UK, France and Spain – and embrace espionage. In Techau’s opinion, Germans need to accept that national power and increasing foreign policy assertiveness come at a price. In other words, what he implies is that if you are powerful and want to have a role in security and international relations, you must play the spying game.

Is that strictly so? As with most things in life, the key to success lies in striking a balance. Secret services and surveillance are necessary in a world where possible threats have multiplied, and e-surveillance plays a key role within that. Moreover, surveillance of top decision makers will not go away unless economic and power competition among states disappears and a world government of sorts is established. In other words, it will not disappear anytime soon. Denying the utility of such techniques is as hypocritical as actually using them and allegedly hiding it from your allies.

However, spying and surveillance should not go as far as curtailing the basic right to privacy of average citizens, who now feel threatened by a looming liberal Big Brother. If democracies are unable to uphold their basic principles, it should come as no surprise that, while extremism and sectarian populism threatens the foundations of European democracies, Beijing’s style of authoritarian capitalism is gaining influence in many corners of the world. Never underestimate the power of the spillover effect.

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