I’m currently in the middle of reading Ken Follett’s hefty novel, Fall of Giants. It is a work of historical fiction, set in the years before and during the First World War. Like many saga-style books of the genre, it follows the fortunes of several individuals whose fates become—with varying degrees of probability—intertwined during the cataclysmic event which shaped the century.
Some books in this style are a bit tiresome, but I’ve been enjoying this one, because Follett is not just a talented storyteller, but has chosen not to restrict himself to the unconvincing and unsympathetic genteel classes who generally populate the pages of such books. Indeed, the most sympathetic characters in the novel are suffragettes and miners in Britain, liberal American and German officers, and a reluctant Russian revolutionary. Fall of Giants describes the hopes for peace which the Great War shattered, and fruits of fairness that were harvested by those who emerged physically unscathed but with a shaken faith in the ability of the old ruling classes to remake the world.
It is difficult to think about the First World War without pondering the factors which caused it to be fought. Intense nationalistic rivalries, based on absurdly jingoistic narratives told by irresponsible politicians and parroted by a bloodthirsty or else supine press played a significant role. So too did the attempts by European nations to control vast overseas empires, the expansion of which put rival kingdoms and republics on a collision course. And so too did the secret diplomacy, spying, and mistrust, which locked countries into suicidal alliances with one another in such a way that the killing of a single nobleman and his wife, neither of whom had done a single day’s work for their country or done anything to merit plunging Europe into war beyond winning a perverse genetic lottery.
The world today is not on the brink of such a cataclysmic war. Nor is it as “multi-polar” as the world in 1914. The United States remains by some margin the world’s largest economy, and by a very long ways the preeminent military power.
And yet our world is one in which very bloody conflicts smoulder for decades, where discontent within nations is deflected into mistrust of other peoples in other parts of the world, and where the interests of a few—protected in the aim of “national security”—misdirect the aims of international relations to the detriment of the many.
By now, most people are familiar with the revelations by NSA contract worker Edward Snowden about the extent of the U.S. government’s spying on the communications of its citizens in an effort to create “profiles” of suspicious activities, a move which suborns the rule of law and threatens to restrict the scope of citizens’ behaviour. Many might also have heard about our military’s efforts to hide these revelations from those who serve in the ranks of the armed forces which are ostensibly charged with protecting the rights of free speech and the principles of openness.
We also now know that the United States is spying on countries which we would normally think of as our “allies” in global geopolitics. The Guardian—access to which is restricted on military installations in an extraordinarily cynical act of censorship—reported that the NSA or other agencies spy on the EU’s offices in D.C. and New York, and on the embassies of France, Italy, Greece, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India, and Turkey. The Guardian also described how Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is “treated in the same U.S. spying category as China, Iraq or Saudi Arabia”.
Some will undoubtedly be undisturbed and unsurprised by these efforts to get the U.S. an advantage in diplomatic negotiations. But if we have learned any diplomatic lessons from the grotesque folly of the Great War, and of many of the U.S.’s subsequent military and national security disasters, it should be that diplomacy conducted in an atmosphere, of mistrust, fear, paranoia, and ill-will leads to uninformed decisions taken sloppily, with little regard for consequences and less for the public interest, and subject to little democratic scrutiny.
Acknowledging the danger inherent in U.S. actions, Germany’s justice minister expressed dismay, remarking, “If the media reports are true, it is reminiscent of the actions of enemies during the cold war...It is beyond imagination that our friends in the US view Europeans as the enemy”. According to the Guardian, another official acknowledged that “Our trust is at stake”, and others described the intrusion by U.S. intelligence agencies as “disgusting”.
There is particularly vicious irony in the behaviour of the United States given the tongue-lashing some of our half-witted Senators have recently been giving to Vladimir Putin over the temporary sanctuary his country has offered to Edward Snowden. John McCain whined that Russians had “pushed the reset back down to about 1955”, invoking the Cold War, with his loud-mouthed colleague Chuck Schumer calling for both Russia and Ecuador to “pay the price” for having the temerity to defy the quest of the United States to punish the man who has shed some light on both the abuses of the public trust by the security state and the abject failure of these Senators to do their job and provide oversight of security agencies.
Putin runs a vicious, thuggish regime, it’s true. But politicians in the United States are day by day leaving themselves less and less room to manoeuvre in offering up criticisms of countries like Russia given their contempt for democratic process, oversight, the rights of citizens, and the principles of peace.
The latest revelations about U.S. spycraft simply confirm that the actions of our national security apparatus represent those of a paranoid, arrogant, hubristic country, the interactions of which with other countries are governed not so much by the interests, never mind the will, of its public, than by a series of shadowy security agencies. To all appearances, these agencies and their political masters operate in darkness, away from scrutiny, without reference to anything the public would recognise as a moral framework, pursuing aims which have nothing whatever to do with the well-being of our country’s citizens or with peace and understanding in our world.
From Mexico City to Tokyo, Brussels to Paris, Berlin to Baghdad, New Delhi to Ankara, citizens around the world should be looking askance at the U.S., and thinking, “With friends like these...”