Cyber espionage row deepens inter-imperialist contradictions

US and Germany at loggerheads.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has, not surprisingly, taken grave exception to the news that the US authorities have been listening in for 10 years to her telephone conversations – a process the Germans have christened handyüberwachung, ie, spying on cellphone calls.

Cell phone eavesdropping

France too has expressed its outrage at the US spying on its diplomats, as the Snowden leaks revealed that some 70 million digital communications had been collected between 10 December 2012 and 8 January 2013 alone.

Moreover, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, the US spied on French diplomats both at the United Nations and in Washington – and used the information they gathered to influence the outcome of a United Nations vote on 9 June 2010 supporting sanctions against Iran.

The Guardian on 24 October also gave details of a classified document revealed by Edward Snowden that makes it clear that the US has been monitoring the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders, not just Angela Merkel.

Merkel’s indignation is mirrored throughout bourgeois Europe: “The perception here [in Europe] is of a United States where security has trumped liberty, intelligence agencies run amok (vacuuming up data of friend and foe alike), and the once-admired ‘checks and balances’ built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren have become, at best, secret reviews of secret activities where opposing arguments get no hearing.” (‘The handyüberwachung disaster’ by Roger Cohen, New York Times, 24 October 2013)

Deep resentment in former socialist countries

Merkel has another reason to be embarrassed. As part of the campaign to undermine the east European socialist camp (in which she was born and grew up), those bent on restoring capitalism made a point of lauding to the skies the supposed political freedom enjoyed in the imperialist world, which they claimed was free of the secret surveillance of citizens that was supposedly characteristic of socialist societies!

As a champion of this much-trumpeted capitalist ‘personal freedom’, Merkel must feel she has been made a fool of – as indeed she has. More importantly, so have all the people of the former socialist countries who were seduced by the pipedreams peddled by the enemies of socialism. Believing the lies about a life of ‘freedom and plenty’ under capitalism, they failed to defend their homeland in its hour of need – and are now having to live with the dire consequences of rampant capitalism in their formerly proud lands.

Be that as it may, in response to the hurt feelings of his European imperialist allies, Obama has promised that the “United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the conversations of the chancellor” – but can he be believed? Moreover, as many commentators have pointed out, the elephant in this particular room is what the US did over years past.

Imperialist dilemma

The dilemma for the European ruling classes is how to ensure that, while collecting and sharing intelligence for use against their common enemies and rivals, this information will not also be used by dominant imperialist powers (especially the US) against themselves – particularly now that the crisis is increasingly exacerbating inter-imperialist contradictions.

All imperialist countries naturally want access to the maximum information on what anti-imperialist organisations and countries are preparing to do, and they want information about the trade and financial policies and practices of non-imperialist bourgeois countries (eg, Brazil and India) and socialist countries (eg, China) that threaten their world domination – but they don’t want themselves to be spied on by their so-called allies! When it turns out that allies are spying on them, they become incandescent with rage – a rage that can endanger future inter-imperialist cooperation.

The angry allegation by the German government that the National Security Agency monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel may force President Obama into making a choice he has avoided for years: whether to continue the age-old game of spying on America’s friends and risk undercutting cooperation with important partners in tracking terrorists, managing the global economy and slowing Iran’s nuclear programme.” (‘Allegation of US spying on Merkel puts Obama at crossroads’ by David E Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, New York Times, 25 October 2013)

The European imperialists are particularly concerned that their sensitive business secrets are being passed by the NSA to their US rivals. Of course, all the imperialist powers are spying on each other. It is not just the Americans engaging in spying activities against the Europeans, but also the Europeans doing so against the Americans. The French in particular are believed to be particularly diligent in pursuing industrial espionage in the US.

The problem is that the US espionage is to European espionage what fishing with a trawl net is to fishing with a line – infinitely more effective! Whereas there is a good chance that confidential US business information can be kept secret from the French, despite the latter’s best efforts to discover it, it would appear that no secret is safe from the NSA’s all-encompassing dragnet.

Impact on future US-European dealings

The various imperialist powers are now trying to see if an agreement can be reached that would limit the extent to which they can spy on each other. In the meantime, much to the annoyance of US imperialism, privacy legislation currently before the European parliament has been amended to reinsert a provision prohibiting companies such as Google and Facebook from passing on information to others (especially US government agencies) without approval from European regulators.

The EU has even suspended an agreement with the United States allowing it to track international bank transactions (ostensibly designed to monitor the finances of terrorist groups), because of fears that the United States authorities were going far beyond their remit in tapping Europeans’ personal financial data.

Because of the dilemma facing the imperialist powers of how to have their cake and eat it, the attempts to secure privacy for government and commercial information are fraught with difficulties.

1. To start with, France and Germany are seeking to go it alone with the US to reach a separate agreement on privacy, rather than working jointly for an agreement that would protect the entire European bourgeoisie.

The decision [to delay the target date for reaching an all-Europe agreement on the protection of privacy until 2015] is set to disappoint privacy advocates, who were hoping that the latest US spying allegations would expedite the adoption of privacy rules first tabled by the European Commission in January 2012.

The decision to delay the adoption of new rules will come as a big victory for US technology companies such as Google and Facebook, which have been frantically lobbying to water down the reform.”(‘Merkel and Hollande to change intelligence ties with US’ by Peter Spiegel and James Fontanella-Khan, Financial Times, 25 October 2013)

2. It is hard to see how such an agreement could be enforced even if it were ever reached.

The US itself as the big boy on the block is hardly going to allow the small European fry to dictate terms to it. The US has already seen fit to remind Germany that information collected by NSA and passed on to the German authorities has enabled the latter in the past to frustrate intended terrorist actions, clearly implying a threat that such intelligence could be withheld if Germany makes itself too awkward.

According to David E Sanger, “President Obama and his top advisers have concluded that there is no workable alternative to the bulk collection of huge quantities of ‘metadata’.” (‘As US weighs spying changes, officials say data sweeps must continue’, New York Times, 5 November 2013)

Other bones of contention

However, it is not just on the question of spying that Europe has been at odds with the US in the last few months.

[T]he United States under Mr Obama had lost a considerable amount of European patience and good will even before the latest round of disclosures from the leaked NSA documents.

First came the diplomatic shambles over Syria, where, in late summer, the United States seemed poised for military action after the killing of hundreds by chemical weapons. France keenly backed America, as did Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron. But Mr Cameron unexpectedly failed to get support from his parliament, Mr Obama wavered, Russia stepped in with a last-minute diplomatic solution that left Germany and other nations diplomatically bruised, and France was left hanging out to dry.

Barely had the trans-Atlantic partners gotten over that discomfort than the divisive partisan politics of Washington precipitated a government shutdown and brought the United States and thus Europe and the world to the brink of default and economic turmoil.

This week, two American ambassadors, Charles H Rivkin in France and John B Emerson in Germany, were summoned to the foreign ministries in Paris and Berlin for a dressing down by two of America’s closest friends. The depressing spectacle reversed the traditional roles played by Europe and America …” (‘Amid new storm in US-Europe relationship, a call for talks on spying’ by Alison Smale, New York Times, 25 October 2013)

Will the trade agreement go ahead?

As a consequence of European anger at the US over all these issues, questions have been raised as to whether the trade pact negotiations to create a super US-European free-trade area that will enable the imperialists on both side of the Atlantic to gain competitive advantage over all their outside rivals, but from which the US benefits to a greater extent than the Europeans, can still continue until the question of cyber espionage is resolved:

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the [German] Social Democratic party and likely vice-chancellor in a new government, said the trade pact could not proceed without an agreement that protected the privacy of European citizens.

‘I cannot imagine how we can conclude a free-trade agreement with America without an agreement that protects the rights and freedom of the individual,’ said Mr Gabriel. ‘If they carry on with this [espionage] they are destroying the fundamental values on which the transatlantic alliance is based.’” (‘Merkel floats EU-US privacy pact as anger mounts over spying’ by Peter Siegel and Quentin Peel, Financial Times, 25 October 2013)

His words will certainly resonate with German manufacturers, who are facing increasingly difficult market conditions in which they are competing with US rivals that may well be receiving government help in finding out the intentions, contacts and intellectual property of their European rivals.

US and Germany fall out over economic policy

Despite the juicy monopolist profits that a transatlantic free trade area is dangling before the eyes of the US and European bourgeoisies, the whole concept may yet fail simply because of the US imperialist belief that the world owes it a living.

As is well known, the Eurozone is currently in deep economic crisis, and this has had the effect of lowering demand for the euro and thus lowering its value in exchange for other currencies, including the dollar. Although it is clear that the fall in the euro is the result of economic forces beyond anybody’s control, the US is whingeing loudly that a weak euro gives European exports, and in particular German exports, an unfair competitive advantage (since they are cheaper to buy elsewhere).

Employing unusually sharp language, the US on Wednesday openly criticized Germany’s economic policies and blamed the eurozone powerhouse for dragging down its neighbours and the rest of the global economy.

In its semi-annual currency report, the treasury department identified Germany’s export-led growth model as a major factor responsible for the 17-nation currency bloc’s weak recovery. The US identified Germany ahead of its traditional target, China, and the most-recent perceived problem country, Japan, in the ‘key findings’ section of the report.” (‘US blasts Germany’s economic policies’ by Ian Talley and Jeffrey Sparshott, Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2013)

What US imperialism apparently expects Germany to do, at US bidding, is to increase its domestic demand. This it could do by quantitative easing, or by undertaking public works, multiplying the number of government employees, lowering income tax, etc – any measure that would increase either personal or government German spending. It could also allow Europe to relax austerity measures and start cranking up personal and public debt once again in order to boost demand.

However, Germany does not propose to bankrupt itself and the whole of the rest of the Europe in order to rescue the US! Any of these measures would in any event in all probability cause a further decline in the exchange value of the euro, bringing everything back to square one – albeit with Europe considerably weakened in the meantime.

Quite apart from that, the US is implementing drastic austerity measures of its own and is in no position to lecture European imperialists on the subject.

Needless to say, the US treasury’s criticisms of Germany’s economic policies went down like a lead balloon in Berlin.

“The US government should critically analyse its own economic situation,” said Michael Meister, a senior lawmaker and close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. He criticised the high US debt level, which, he said “doesn’t just unsettle [the US], but has negative effects on the global economy”.

At the same time, Gerhard Schick, finance spokesman for the opposition Greens, said Germany’s willingness “to take advice from Washington has decreased massively after the US government shutdown put the entire financial system at jeopardy”. (Quotes from ‘Berlin dismisses US criticism of economy’ by Harriet Torry and Ian Talley, Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2013)

If the terms of the proposed US-Europe imperialist marriage turn out to be that European imperialists are expected to become the vassals of their US counterparts, with a responsibility for holding up their US masters above water to keep them alive while themselves drowning, the match is unlikely to appeal on this side of the Atlantic.

When thieves fall out …

At one level it may be true that “the United States and Europe are like a bickering couple that will never break up. For all the sharp words, they cannot even begin to contemplate an actual divorce.” (‘Amid new storm in US-Europe relationship, a call for talks on spying’ by Alison Smale, New York Times, 25 October 2013)

Yet Alison Smale notes, although she does not believe divorce will ensue, that “even united, the Europeans often feel like bystanders, powerless to stop the dithering or insensitivity of their partner, the world’s No 1 power”. In circumstances such as these, it must be said, even old married couples get divorced from time to time when trust is lost – even if the divorce leaves them worse off in other respects! The possibility, though perhaps remote, cannot altogether be discounted.

At the very least, it seems unlikely that European governments will continue to collaborate with the US’s cyber espionage programme with the same gay abandon as they have done until now.

From the point of view of the proletariat, whether in the US, Germany or the rest of the European Union, the sight of its respective exploiters weakening each other through contention can only give strengthen our hope that these events will give rise to opportunities for furthering the cause of liberation everywhere.

It is our responsibility to make every use of the preoccupation and division of our enemies and to build our movements so that these imperialist monsters can be overthrown as soon as possible, and the suffering their system is causing to untold millions of the inhabitants of this world can be alleviated.

This task is even more urgent given the fact that the imperialist vultures are daily undermining the chances of long-term human survival by wreaking potentially irreversible damage on our environment through the wars and other devastation that result from their insane pursuit of maximum profit.