Giant misstep in diplomacy

Over the past few weeks it has been revealed that the U. S. National Security Agency has engaged in a an expansive program of spying on our closest foreign allies. While we have come to expect that the NSA and other intelligence agencies routinely monitor the communications of our foes, this revelation was somehow more disturbing.

It was certainly thus to a whole raft of our allies. Upon learning that the NSA had been monitoring her cellphone use, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Guardian newspaper: “We need trust among allies and partners. Such trust now has to be built anew.”

Nothing like soiling one’s own international nest over relatively small stakes. Predictably the Obama administration has sought to minimize the damage. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters: “The president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor.”

What’s most notable about Carney’s subtle framing of the affair is his use of verb tense. There was nothing in his remarks that implied denial, just a promise to not do it again. This kind of oblique contact with the allegation is as unflattering as it is disingenuous.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was a bit more direct in his response: “At least in Europe, we consider the right to privacy a fundamental right, and it is a very serious matter.”

In short, our position might be construed to be that the French, Germans and others should be thankful that we troubled to spy upon them. While no one should be so naïve as to think our nation’s intelligence operations observe any national boundaries, this turn is just unseemly. Even so, many on the political right find nothing wrong with the NSA tactic.

Perhaps the exemplar of this tired old “might makes right” tradition of American exceptionalism is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers’ (R-Mich.), defense of the program: “I would argue, by the way, if the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks. It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the U.S. safe.”

Apparently the other leaders of the free world should thank us for violating their rightful expectations of privacy and security.

Readers of history might recall some of Benjamin Franklin’s words from Poor Richard’s Almanac: “In other men we faults can spy; And blame the mote that dims their eye; Each little speck and blemish find; To our own stronger errors blind.”

That which we might find intolerable in others, we excuse in ourselves. Because we are the nation we are, that somehow permits us to do whatever we think we need.

Anyone who has ever read Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels understands the folly of conducting oneself in this way. Just because you’re bigger than anybody else doesn’t mean you have the moral authority to abuse others. Moreover, today’s giant might become tomorrow’s dwarf. In preparing for that turn, a history of glib disregard and bullying behavior is seldom good.

When Swift penned this famous tale, England was the greatest power on Earth, but greatness is always a matter of perspective. As the King of Swift’s mythical realm, Brobdingnab tells Gulliver about the people of England: “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

To that point, any nation that seeks to maintain its greatness would do well to keep Swift’s sage admonishments in focus. Just because we have the power to do something doesn’t mean we have the moral authority to do it.

And really, don’t we have enough enemies to spy on without turning our secretive ears toward our friends?