The Russian Option

Snowden on Karl-Marx-Strasse. Berlin, August 2014.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s outgoing foreign minister, apparently took a decision that shocked many across Europe last week. He announced that the representatives of the Right Livelihoods Award, who bestow the yearly Alternative Nobel Prize, were banned from announcing this year’s winner at his ministry, something they had been doing for 18 years.

Their crime? Awarding this year’s prize to Edward Snowden, the fugitive NSA contractor whose revelations about the pervasiveness of American electronic intelligence gathering dominated the news cycle last year. Snowden, currently holed up in Moscow, received the prize for his “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights”. The foreign ministry denied that Edward Snowden’s win had anything to do with this decision, officially based on new security regulations. But no one was fooled.

For the Swedish government to express its displeasure in such strong terms is highly unusual. Sweden has never been known for radicalism – except of a fluffy, welfarist sort. The country is not a member of NATO, it regularly tops global livelihood indexes, and is arguably more generous to those fleeing persecution than any other rich country. It has a well-deserved reputation for openness, honesty and quiet competence. Mr. Snowden’s award should fit right into that tradition. So why the fuss?

The international context is probably more perilous for democratic ideals than it has been at any time since the end of the Second World War. Totalitarians of all stripes are winning the war for public opinion by feeding a narrative of western decline and duplicity. Misbegotten western policies, including financial deregulation and the disastrously mis-designed eurozone, feed that story by generating a constant stream of pain and misery affecting millions in Europe and North America.

One could never claim that it is easy to optimise the balance between freedom and security. In fact, it cannot be done. Circumstances have always dictated where that balance should be struck, and they will continue to do so.

In a liberal age, and in a liberal country, the demands of freedom will prevail. Strong privacy will be guaranteed, the operations of the forces of law and order will be tightly circumscribed, strict rules will ensure political transparency. And in an age of conflict, the demands of security will naturally grow in importance.

Anti-capitalist demonstrators. Berlin, August 2014
Anti-capitalist activists. Berlin, August 2014.

It is impossible to objectively decree how threats and opportunities should move the dial. Everyone’s assessment of the risks they are willing to bear is different – as is their belief in the reality of any given threat, given that elites have been known to manipulate public fears to push through illiberal policies. Every era, and every country, must always work out its own compromise. That balance is rightly the subject of political debate; indeed, it probably is one of the most important political questions states must grapple with.

Many believe that the revelations Edward Snowden made are useful contributions to that debate. That may or may not be so. What is certain, however, is that in seeking to influence that debate, Mr. Snowden was ready to pay a price that was not his to give.

For foreign policy professionals, that price has been a disaster – and Mr Bildt is seen by many as one of the European Union’s most accomplished foreign ministers. To them, Snowden’s revelations have not merely weakened the West’s security. That is a cost that, while serious, could perhaps be borne. Much worse is that they have also weakened democracy’s appeal, and directly helped democracy’s enemies.

The lies spewed by the Bush and Blair administration to justify the invasion of Iraq were the first major blow to democracy’s legitimacy since the end of the Cold War. They were foolishly self-inflicted. Their effect was profound. They opened a wide door to the sentiment that western governments are no more believable than dictatorships – and, perhaps, no more desirable.

The rot went far: tens of millions are now unable to distinguish between, say, the weaknesses of the BBC and the torrent of lies spewed by propaganda outfits like RT. Disillusioned by their inability to influence policies in an age of austerity, Europe’s left and its far right have bought into Mr. Putin’s narrative of Ukrainian fascism, European duplicity and Russian special interests.

When Russia was an option. Berlin, May 2014.
When Moscow meant freedom. Berlin, May 2014.

Across Africa and Latin America, rulers are embracing the Chinese model of muscular development, with its reputation for getting things done. Europeans are increasingly seen as ineffectual, sermonising, and unable to put their own economies in order; the American dream has become a dystopia of paralysed government and one-percenter greed.

But one cannot lay all the blame at the feet of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and their coterie of arrogant neocons. Totalitarians are also winning the contest for ideas because they are not hampered by the long-winded search for compromise that characterises democracy, and because they use tools which democrats either cannot use, or use badly.

Their strategic objectives are clear: weaken the West sufficiently to re-establish empires of vassal states, be it in eastern Europe, central Asia or the South China Sea. That means damaging or destroying the web of alliances centred on the USA that have kept Europe and East Asia stable for decades.

Russia has no soft power to convince Georgia or Ukraine to, say, join its Eurasian Union; it must coerce them. The EU, despite its flaws, is still a beacon of hope, from the Maidan through the Caucasus to the rickety boats full of migrants embarking on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Totalitarian states do not seduce. They don’t believe in partnerships or rules. They believe in strength and power.

Europe, above all, knows where such thinking leads: war. That is the sole reason this half-baked thing called the European Union exists. The idea is disarmingly simple: 28 ministers debating the labelling of washing machines is far preferable to 28 governments engaged in an arms race.

It is also why NATO, with its admirably brief charter, is still the alliance all European states clamour to join. Its Article 5 – one for all, and all for one – seems inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers. It is an idea that never loses its appeal.

First month of the Ukraine crisis. Brussels, April 2014.
First month of the Ukraine crisis. Brussels, April 2014.

If we believe that the European experiment has value, then it must be protected from those to which it presents an intolerable challenge. It is in that context that giving totalitarian regimes an edge, however unwittingly, is insane.

Yet that is exactly what Snowden has done. By revealing how our secret services harvest the data in which useful intelligence may, like needle in a haystack, lie, he has given totalitarians one of their biggest victories in decades.

The NSA reads your mail! The NSA logs your purchases! The NSA bugs your phone! The effect on public trust of this unceasing torrent of revelations was extraordinarily damaging (the fact that we are much less wiser about the ways totalitarian secret services operate should give every democrat pause). Many millions in the West have lost faith in their democratic institutions.

A corrosive cynicism is spreading wide, providing a fertile ground for a propaganda onslaught whose sophistication and breadth is staggering. Nothing could better serve the agenda of those to whom democracy is an inconvenience.

It is the agent of that totalitarian victory that the Right Livelihood Awards, in its astonishing naiveté, is rewarding.

Snowden did not set out to become a tool of totalitarian propaganda. But that is what he immediately became.

This error of judgement could, were one to feel charitable, be blamed on the idealism and arrogance of his youth.

But it was compounded by a second one which is much harder to forgive: his choice of refuge. Anyone who seriously believes that Russian intel has not yet gotten every last byte out of his laptops and USB sticks – merely because Snowden says so – is living in cloud cuckoo land. Russian services are as sophisticated as Western ones when it comes to electronic surveillance – and to the acquisition of human intel. Mr Snowden has now been at their disposal for over a year.

His defenders claim he had no choice, since no Western country offered him refuge and he risked decades in jail if the US caught up with him. That argument should not wash. Mr. Snowden chose to put himself in a situation where giving crucial help to totalitarians was a high risk. He knew that. He did it anyway. When, inevitably, he was presented with the choice of sacrificing his own liberty or of seriously damaging the West, he chose his individual welfare.

That does not make him a hero. It makes him a coward.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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