PRISM: An International Relations Disaster?

Across the pond, our European press has kept us fully appraised on all known developments in the increasingly weird Edward Snowden road-show and the serious ramifications of his disclosure about PRISM. Europeans know that Americans are being comprehensively spied on by the U.S. government; that National Intelligence Director James Clapper had to apologize to Congress last Tuesday for being "erroneous" when he told them in March that the NSA did not spy on millions of Americans; and that law abiding American citizens are viewing the revelations about PRISM as the hottest constitutional potato in decades.

During the last few weeks, my impression has been that most Europeans are sympathetic to American society's anger and disgust that its country's riddled with homegrown bugs. For varying reasons, we too would hate similar happening to us. However, because something similar hasn't happened to us, PRISM has been an interesting storyline in Europe, but hasn't produced a sense of outrage over here. Yes, there have been questions asked and committees raised in the British government and elsewhere in relation to whether our intelligence agencies have acted on PRISM intelligence in the past. But that tiny ripple effect has been pretty much the sum total of PRISM-related activity on my side of the pond. That, and various European countries stamping "reject" on Snowden's requests for asylum.

But hang on. While Snowden's been holed up in Moscow airport transit hell, getting meaner by the day, and with only WikiLeaks for company, more PRISM data has come to light and this data does affect Europeans. We've learned that if an American citizen communicates with one of us in a way that could trigger alarm bells, then our data can also be pulled into the PRISM dragnet. We've also learnt that the NSA has been conducting cyber attacks against the European Union.

This has produced anger among EU officials -- who are going public with phrases like, "bugging friends is unacceptable," and "we must rebuild confidence" -- but this anger seems tokenistic, mild, and hardly suggestive that the EU is on a war cry footing. Maybe EU officials secretly envy the NSA. After all, most EU officials would dearly like to know what's really going on inside their bureaucratically chaotic organization. Or maybe they can't get genuinely angry about something they've known about all along. More important, the general European public doesn't seem particularly shocked and surprised that America is bugging the EU and has the potential to grab the personal data of European citizens.

The reaction, or rather lack of reaction, among Europeans to the PRISM revelations is indicative of a much bigger issue that should cause the American government serious concern. The issue is "trust."

Rightly or wrongly, there is a sense in Europe that for many years the United States governments have been conducting overseas policies that make America look like a swaggering, self-centered, bully.

There are arguments for and against actions such as rendition, torture, military intervention, drone attacks, and comprehensive domestic and overseas surveillance, but when you put these and other actions together they paint a picture of an America that we no longer know or trust. Thus, when it transpired that the American government has been unfaithful to the people it is sworn to serve -- the American public -- most people on this side of the pond shrugged their shoulders and thought, "no surprise."

For all the rhetoric coming out of China, Russia, parts of Europe, and elsewhere, PRISM isn't an international relations disaster. The American government needed to have the trust of other countries for that to be the case. Sadly, the real "disaster" was incremental and happened over years, culminating in a break down in trust before the PRISM revelations. Now a David and Goliath battle is taking place between Snowden and the U.S. administration, but few Europeans have empathy for either party.

From this side of the pond, and politics aside, the widespread view is that the United States is truly a magnificent country that in principal should still remain the lead actor standing center stage in the globe, providing the American people triumph over recent poor U.S. government judgment. If that doesn't happen, then America may no longer have a global audience and could become as isolated as Edward Snowden.