“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”
— A Perfect Spy, John le Carré
Most people believe that intelligence gathering is about finding out what someone else is going to do.
Instead, it’s about finding out what someone else is thinking. After all, saying something does not necessarily mean doing something. Just look at President Obama’s policy on Syria.
Correspondingly, intelligence gathering seeks to allow a policymaker to explore the contemplations of those that sit across the table. Or those on the other side of the phone. The intention — to enable America’s leaders to navigate the diplomatic fog more effectively.
Yet, as Snowden has proved, effective intelligence collection must balance the needs of secrecy and trust with the need for understanding. When the balance fails — when a source or method is compromised — the diplomatic and political fallout can be tremendous. Just ask Angela Merkel.
Nevertheless, in Ukraine, we’re seeing why aggressive American intelligence collection is absolutely critical.
Last Thursday, Ukraine, a prospective member of the European Union and an ally of the United States, was invaded.
Not even a week later, Russia has dominated the Crimean peninsula, fired upon Ukrainian troops, and threatened to consume Ukraine’s eastern Oblasts.
Last Thursday, one might have expected the world to respond quickly to such unrepentant aggression. One might have expected rapid sanctions, isolated Russian financial interests, and Putin’s removal from the G8.
Only in the liberal dream world.
Because when the crunch arrives, national interests talk and multilateral interests walk. And what’s rapidly become clear in Ukraine is the distance between America and our European allies.
Take the leader of Europe — Germany.
Last weekend, with the invasion fully underway, John Kerry commented that Russia’s continued participation in the G8 would have to be reconsidered. Kerry’s statement was hardly an act of war. In fact, faced with such an outrage, it was a basic necessity.
But Germany’s foreign minister saw the situation very differently. With immediate response, he struck down suggestions that Russia be isolated. Behind the scenes, other major EU powers share Germany’s fears — to avoid a conflagration that would endanger Russian gas exports and threaten the continent’s economy.
Then, in a pretty remarkable turn of events, on Monday, a UK Government document was leaked (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps deliberately). It was a British National Security Council finding concerning the situation in Ukraine. And it was very telling.
The document suggested that the UK would “Not support, for now, trade sanctions… or [closing] London’s financial center to Russians.” It also clarified that the UK would “discourage any discussions of contingency military preparations.”
And then it resorted to that favorite playbook of European liberal internationalism — the UN.
The UK, the document said, would push the UN to mediate with Russia on the crisis.
Yes, the UN. Team America sums it up.
So let’s recap.
A European state invaded — check.
The Russian government slowly taking control of Ukrainian territory and threatening movement north — check.
Further Russian military exercises on the border of Poland and Lithuania — check.
Russian missile tests proximate to Ukraine — check.
And America stands alone in arguing for at least a hint of a response that’s something more than nothing.
As I say, no one should be surprised.
This EU-U.S. disconnect isn’t ultimately about European timidity and unwillingness to face down aggression (although that’s part of it). Instead, it’s about the distinction of interests between states. Where the United States has decided that its primary interest is to protect the interests of Ukraine (albeit still hesitantly), EU member states have decided that their primary interests are energy and economics.
Welcome to reality.
As I’ve argued before, the 2003 War in Iraq provides another perfect example of why the NSA spies on Europe.
In the end, it’s simply absurd for the United States to believe that what someone says on paper is what they’ll do in practice. It’s not just absurd, it’s dangerous.
For all the clamoring against U.S. foreign policy over the past ten years, what’s happening in Europe is elucidating a truth hidden for far too long. For what’s happening in Ukraine is pretty simple. Russia wants to dominate. And the EU has chosen to put energy before human rights — to allow Ukrainians to be trampled.
Again, in pure strategic terms, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. European democracies have the natural right to form policy as they wish.
Still, the United States also has an obvious imperative to know what the EU’s leaders are planning beyond the cameras. While the U.S.-UK intelligence relationship precludes non-compliant espionage, no such agreements are in place between the U.S. and other European nations. Ukraine is proving why. Ukraine is proving that NSA operations in Europe are critical.
Both for the national security interests of the United States and for the human interests of innocent citizens subject to the specter of war.