The latest stream of revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – that the United States has been spying on at least 35 foreign leaders – sparked a firestorm abroad and at home and have boxed in President Barack Obama, who finds himself struggling a year into his second term. They have damaged America’s relationship with some of its closest allies more so than any foreign-policy decision Obama has made, analysts say.
“We simply can’t return to business as usual,” German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere was quoted by ARD television as saying late last month. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’ Face the Nation that tapping leaders’ phones has “more political liability than probably intelligence viability.”
The botched rollout of Obama’s health-care law, his handling of Syria, and NSA revelations have led to Obama finding himself at the lowest point in his presidency, with his lowest approval ratings since taking office. That has hampered his ability to gain any traction for a second-term domestic agenda on things like the budget and immigration reform.
But the methodical Snowden leaks have put on raw display not only Washington’s eavesdropping on leaders from Berlin to Ankara, but also exposed how the U.S. collects information on friends and foes, including secretly tracking the Israeli military, and that the U.S. and Israel created the virus to attack an Iranian nuclear facility. As a result, Obama’s ability to push forward with a robust foreign-policy agenda -- whether it’s building a broad coalition for intervention in Syria, Middle East peace talks, and even trade in Asia -- has been crippled.
Others argue that, in the long term, the Snowden episode will not significantly damage the United States’ reputation and relationship with its allies, though it could take promises from a new administration before the relationships are fully repaired.
“When the dust settles and these disclosures stop, I think that historians will not look back at this moment as a turning point,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director for European Affairs for the first Clinton administration’s National Security Council.
The U.S. will likely scale back its surveillance activities on major European allies like Germany, France and Spain, Kupchan said, but probably not much. “The National Security Agency is still going to suck in vast quantities of information,” he said, but “there will be at least a greater effort to aim the intelligence apparatus at things that are necessary and not just available.”
It is in the mutual interest of the United States and its allies for most of the surveillance to continue, he added. “The French and Spanish citizens whose calls and text messages have been stored might not like it, but they benefit from it.”
Especially post 9/11, the United States has an interest in domestic activities in places like Spain, because of things like the 2004 Madrid train bombing, planned and executed by al Qaeda.
Some allies have floated putting a hold on negotiations of a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement as a concrete show of disapproval over the spying program. The German magazine Der Spiegel quoted Bavarian Economy Minister Ilse Aigner as saying the talks should be put “on ice” for now.
But former U.S. ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy, who served in that role from 2009 to mid-2013, said that deferring negotiations would harm both the United States and its partners in the talks. “It can’t be rational,” he said, “that in your thirst to find a tangible reaction to this crisis, you do something against your interests.”
He added that given German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s commitment, since 2007, in forging an agreement, he believed “her instinct is going to want to be to push forward.”
‘That wasn’t a lot of fun’
At least three heads of government used a public diplomatic maneuver to express their disapproval of the U.S.’ spying program: summoning their countries’ U.S. ambassador to meet with them.
Ambassadors James Costos (Spain), John Emerson (Germany), and Charles Rivkin (France) were all brought in to hear grievances from officials in their host countries in late October.
But for all the pageantry around such encounters -- photos show Costos being swarmed by media as he left the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- Murphy said they are meant more as diplomatic bark than bite.
“It’s not shocking that one of the things the host country has to do is say, ‘Look, we have to call the ambassador in to make sure he or she knows our displeasure,’” Murphy said, adding that he had never been officially summoned but had “had a few crises as well” in his tenure. His cables, for example, were among those revealed as part of the Wikileaks affair in 2010.
Kupchan added that it made no difference whether the ambassador being called in was a political appointee, having been an Obama “bundler” in the 2008 or 2012 campaigns, as all three current ambassadors to those countries are.
“The ambassador goes back to his or her office and with the help of staff, writes a cable,” he said. “And the cable goes to Washington, and it says, I just got called into the foreign ministry and they took my head off.”
A State Department official seconded that, saying that each ambassador is required to fulfill leadership and technical training to ensure “each is fully qualified to fulfill the requisite duties of their office.”
And mostly in these situations, the diplomatic qualifications of an ambassador do not matter. They are simply there to take an earful and for those foreign leaders to send a very public message back to Washington.
“It’s possible that not only did John Doe send a cable back to the State Department," Kupchan said, "but he picked up the phone and called the White House and said, ‘That wasn’t a lot of fun.’”
NBC's Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.