Americans are having a hard time coming to terms with the effect of National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks and the damage they have done to America’s status in the world. In part, U.S. leaders do not want to admit that the leaks were merely the final straw for the growing discontent with American global leadership that predated Snowden and has many causes, including failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global economic crisis that spread from Wall Street. The unipolar moment was never popular—the leaks confirm that it is over.
Snowden’s material has been shaped to portray a rogue NSA and a cowboy America that disregards global rules at will, while his material on foreign espionage against the U.S. has been withheld. This picture, likes its authors, is dishonest. But American efforts to highlight this dishonesty misread foreign perceptions of America’s global role, which explains why our justifications of the NSA’s activities have been so ineffective with audiences in other countries.
The damage to intelligence collection will cost billions to repair but is temporary. The damage to specific American foreign policy goals is small, in part because these had little chance of success with or without Snowden. The leaks have not changed the likelihood of a happy outcome in Afghanistan or damaged prospects for Middle East peace. They have had little effect on discussions of climate change, duty to intervene, the diversity agenda or other favored themes in American diplomacy. Rather, the leaks have damaged our ability to influence the actions of other nations, even those who share our interests.