It’s a Bad Idea to Alienate Your Friends

When an individual becomes so powerful that he is literally the only one of his status left in the field, it is almost certain that he will become quite haughty — unless he dedicates himself to the intense study of mussar.

Countries work much the same way.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the best word with which to describe the United States’ conduct of its foreign policy is “arrogant.”

Twenty years ago this week, Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, citing the fact that this tiny island had been taken over by Cuban-linked Marxists. What America had chosen to ignore was the fact that Grenada was a former British colony. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was incensed that her government wasn’t consulted and was notified only hours before some 1,900 Marines seized the island. The affable Mr. Reagan later apologized profusely and managed to paper over — though not eradicate — damage done to the British-American relationship.

When the Iron Curtain came tumbling down and the U.S.S.R. fell apart, the United States remained, the world’s last superpower, and its conceit and penchant for reckless behavior only grew.

One particularly strident example of this approach has now made international headlines. Thanks to the treachery of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — and the incredible ineptitude of the U.S. government, which allowed him access to this information and then failed to stop him from freely disseminating it to the media — it is now publicly known that America has been spying for years on the leaders of allied nations.

There is nothing surprising about the notion of spying on allies, but actually monitoring the cell phones of a prime minister or president of a country considered to be a friend of the United States is taking matters way too far.

Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner put it well when he admitted in a radio interview that it was “the magnitude of the eavesdropping” that shocked the Europeans. “Let’s be honest — we eavesdrop, too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”

It isn’t only jealousy; it is a massive breakdown of trust.

While this writer has little empathy for most EU governments and absolutely none for Germany, their outrage is genuine and we must take it seriously.

Supposedly, the primary focus of NSA eavesdropping these days is that every possible tool is needed in the fight against global terror. But it is also important to inject a little realism into this discussion: If the eavesdropping would be limited to listening in to European intelligence agents in the field, it would be defensible; but what, exactly, does the NSA expect to discover by listening in to the calls of the leaders of allied nations? Does the United States really think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in cahoots with some Somali terror group — and conducts this international conspiracy via her private cellphone?

Is America so arrogant that it really thought it could get away with this forever? It is very tempting to try to dump all the blame on Edward Snowden, as the Republicans are doing. Indeed, Snowden’s actions are deplorable and indefensible, but, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” It would be absurd to think that a memo sent out by the NSA to senior officials at the White House, Pentagon and other agencies asking for phone numbers of foreign leaders wouldneventually be leaked.

Even the toughest bully on the block eventually learns that alienating every friend is a very bad idea, and America is learning this lesson the hard way.

This wasn’t only a slap in the face of the foreign governments; it was a personal insult to their leaders, and one that can have a lasting effect on America’s ability to ask for and get important favors from the countries across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Currently the Europeans are considering a plan to suspend the SWIFT agreement — a post-9/11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money. Even if this powerful rebuke is averted, it is almost certain that the routine, behind-the-scenes, unofficial exchange of intelligence will be harmed by these disclosures.

It is crucial that the Obama administration gets off its high horse and realizes that in order to keep friends, it has to start acting like one. This includes expressing remorse for its past actions and solid commitment to avoid such conduct going forward.