The episode with the Bolivian president’s plane exposes almost as many truths as Snowden’s revelations. These truths are just as conveniently hidden from public sight. The question remains, of course, if the public really wants to know them. It may well be that developed democracies rely on the consent of people who, as the Psalmist put it, “have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see.”
First, Snowden is not a fugitive from justice with an Interpol arrest warrant. The U.S. accuses him of espionage, which is a political offense that does not fall under the usual categories leading to arrest and extradition to other countries. Political refugees have occasionally been rendered to their countries of origin, but these precedents are hardly inspiring. For example, Stalin’s NKVD handed German communists, including Jews, to the Gestapo in 1939.
Second, even assuming that Snowden is a known common law criminal fleeing from justice, it is highly unusual to violate the diplomatic immunity of a country’s president on the information, let alone the suspicion, that the fugitive is on board. This contrasts starkly with the same European countries’ connivance with the United States in its practice of extraordinary renditions pursued through their air space. This also brings to mind the prompt acquiescence of transnational financial companies, such as Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, to the U.S. request to cut funds transfer to Wikileaks, while neither Wikileaks, nor its founder Assange had been convicted of any crime in a court of law (and even if they had been, it would have been for the political offense of espionage).
Third, this episode shows the growing irrelevance of national governments. President Hollande’s protestations about U.S. intelligence activities sound hollow and hypocritical while the French government orders to close France’s air space to the Bolivian president’s plane, unless, of course, France’s military and intelligence agencies show a stronger allegiance to their American counterparts than to their country’s president. Or these agencies act altogether independently of the national government and routinely receive their orders from NATO. Supranational entities, EU, IMF as well as gigantic transnational business interests have grown accustomed to obviate national governments and the electorates that go through the regular ritual of democratic elections. No wonder that major international trade agreements are nowadays negotiated in secret.
Fourth, Snowden’s difficulty of finding an asylum shows how obedient to the one and only superpower today’s world, with very few exceptions, has become. Apparently, this obedience to the United States tramples all pretence of maintaining international law and justice. These breaches of international law took place at the behest of a country that refused to join the International Court of Justice in The Hague and is proverbially averse to subject its citizens, particularly its military and political personnel, to foreign jurisdictions. In fact, Snowden’s and Wikileaks revelations only confirm what informed observers have assumed all along: in the absence of a credible international counterweight, the United States would commit any and all infractions of international law, including the laws of war.
Most Western elites more or less tacitly cooperate with Washington. This should not be surprising since their interests are more aligned with those of other countries’ elites than with the citizens of their own countries. Apparently this happens not only in imposition of economic austerity measures, even by those ostensibly elected to uphold social justice (such as socialists in France). The search of Evo Morales' plane on the tarmac in Vienna has put into focus the right of American political, business and military elites to impose their will on Europe. It makes little sense to distinguish between the overtly obsequious “New Europe” to the East of the Elbe from the rest of the continent no longer trying to keep up appearances.
Yakov Rabkin, Dept of History, University of Montreal.