Judy Asks: Should America spy on its allies?

Judy Asks: Should America spy on its allies?

Opinion piece (Carnegie Europe)
16 July 2014

Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform

It would be naive to think that allies never spy on each other. Israel was caught running an agent in U.S. naval intelligence in the 1980s, but the impact on wider relations was limited, and Israel is still America’s preeminent partner in the Middle East.

However, any state thinking about acquiring secrets from its friends illicitly has to balance the expected benefits against the risks of being caught and the damage it may suffer as a result. NATO and EU countries tell each other a lot anyway, so a country has to be certain that its friends are hiding something worth stealing, that it is unlikely to get caught, and that a convincing display of contrition will restore harmonious relations if the snooping is exposed.

The public will probably never know whether the Americans uncovered some great secret either by listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone or by cultivating German officials. But clearly, the Americans underestimated the risks of exposure and the likely public and political reaction. Any lasting rift will be bad news at a time when the United States and Germany should be working together to respond to crises in Ukraine and the Middle East.

As Merkel said, "we have so many problems, we should focus on the important things." Or, as U.S. President Barack Obama put it when explaining his foreign policy doctrine: "Don’t do stupid shit!"