We tend to view international politics in terms of horizontal divisions with nation states competing with each other at various levels that can on occasion lead to conflicts. Sometimes this split can be taken advantage of by playing one country against the other. But in the case of Edward Snowden we see even countries that are not particularly friendly to the US closing ranks and being reluctant to give him asylum. Even South American countries who are furious at what the US and Western European countries did to the Bolivian president’s plane still have not accepted him.
Undoubtedly one reason is that countries do not want to be seen as too hostile to the US. The US government is notorious for harshly punishing any smaller country that does not toe its line, as we can see from the cruel decades-long embargo that has been imposed on Cuba, causing immense hardship to the people of that nation.
But there is another factor at play. We must never forget that there are other ways to see the international divide and that is along a vertical dimension between governments and their own peoples. This is because all governments are to varying degrees authoritarian. While governments view other governments as potential adversaries, they also view their own people in the same way because the people may demand more from the government than it is willing to allow. This is most clear in the case of dictatorships but it is also true of more democratic countries.
Governments don’t like ordinary people getting ideas above their station and this tension is clearly at play in the case of Snowden. While it is undoubtedly the case that some governments welcome what Snowden did because it reveals the extent to which the US is exerting its hegemonic power, they are also wary of encouraging whistleblowers within their own countries who might reveal things that are embarrassing to them.
We see this most clearly with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who is a tool of governments in general and the US and Western Europe in particular, who stepped into the fray, saying that Snowden has ‘misused’ digital communications, an extraordinary statement when the biggest ‘misuser’ is clearly the US government.
The question is which country will eventually break ranks and have the courage to embrace Snowden. It is important that this happen because he must not be allowed to fall into the clutches of the Obama administration.