Scandals Harm U.S. Soft Power

The world will not respect the American model as much now.

For the past few months, the United States has been rocked by a series of scandals. It all started with the events in Benghazi, when Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists attacked the General Consulate there and murdered four diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Then there was the scandal exposed when it was revealed that the Justice Department was monitoring the calls of the Associated Press. The Internal Revenue Service seems to have targeted certain political groups. Finally, there was the vast National Security Agency apparatus for monitoring online activity revealed by Edward Snowden. Together, these events provoke a number of questions about the path taken by contemporary Western societies, and especially the one taken by America.

Large and powerful institutions, especially those in the security sphere, have become unaccountable to the public, even to representatives of the people themselves. Have George Orwell’s cautionary tales of total government control over society been realized?

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, my fellow students and I read Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian stories and believed them to portray fascist Germany or the Soviet Union—two totalitarian regimes—but today it has become increasingly apparent that Orwell, Huxley and other dystopian authors had seen in their own countries (Britain and the United States) certain trends, especially as technological capabilities grew, that would ultimately allow governments to exert total control over their societies. The potential for this type of all-knowing regime is what Edward Snowden revealed, confirming the worst fears that the dystopias are already being realized.

On a practical geopolitical level, the spying scandals have seriously tarnished the reputation of the United States. They have circumscribed its ability to exert soft power; the same influence that made the U.S. model very attractive to the rest of the world. This former lustre is now diminished. The blatant everyday intrusions into the private lives of Americans, and violations of individual rights and liberties by runaway, unaccountable U.S. government agencies, have deprived the United States of its authority to dictate how others must live and what others must do. Washington can no longer lecture others when its very foundational institutions and values are being discredited—or at a minimum, when all is not well “in the state of Denmark.”

Perhaps precisely because not all is well, many American politicians seem unable to adequately address the current situation. Instead of asking what isn’t working in the government and how to ensure accountability and transparency in their institutions, they try, in their annoyance, to blame the messenger—as they are doing in Snowden’s case. Some Senators hurried to blame Russia and Ecuador for anti-American behavior, and threatened to punish them should they offer asylum to Snowden.

These threats could only cause confusion in sober minds, as every sovereign country retains the right to issue or deny asylum to whomever it pleases. In addition, the United States itself has a tradition of always offering political asylum to deserters of the secret services of other countries, especially in the case of the former Soviet Union and other ex-socialist countries. In those situations, the United States never gave any consideration to how those other countries might react—it considered the deserters sources of valuable information. As long as deserters have not had a criminal and murderous past, they can receive political asylum in any country that considers itself sovereign and can stand up to any pressure and blackmail.

Meanwhile, the hysteria of some politicians, if the State Department or other institutions of the executive branch join it, can only accelerate the process of Snowden’s asylum. For any country he might ask will only be more willing to demonstrate its own sovereignty and dignity by standing up to a bully that tries to dictate conditions to it. In our particular case, political pressure on Russia and President Putin could turn out to be utterly counterproductive. I believe that Washington has enough levelheaded people to understand that fact, and correctly advise the White House. The administration will need sound advice, as many people in Congress fail to understand the consequences of their calls for punishment of sovereign countries or foreign political leaders that don’t dance to Washington’s tune.

Judging by the latest exchange between Moscow and Washington, it appears that the executive branches of both countries will find adequate solutions to the Snowden situation without attacks on each other’s dignity and self-esteem. Russia and the United States are both Security Council members, and much hinges on their decisions, including a slew of common problems that make cooperation necessary.

Yet the recent series of scandals has caused irreparable damage to the image and soft power of the United States. I do not know how soon this damage can be repaired. But gone are the days when Orwell was seen as a relic of the Cold War, as the all-powerful Leviathan of the security services has run away from all accountability to state and society. Today the world is looking at America—and its model for governance—with a more critical eye.

Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.