NSA Surveillance Revelations Won’t Dent Democratization Elsewhere

A piece in today’s Boston Globe makes a case I’ve also seen in other venues in the past couple of weeks: that revelations about the NSA‘s domestic surveillance programs have undercut the U.S. government’s ability to prod authoritarian regimes to democratize. In the Globe, Thanassis Cambanis writes:

Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?

For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.

“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” [Access spokesperson Katherine] Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”

As someone who donates to the ACLU, I think there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the scope of the NSA’s domestic snooping, but the encouragement those programs supposedly provides to authoritarian rulers isn’t one of them. American officials only wish they had that kind of power over their foreign counterparts.

The claim that authoritarian regimes will be more repressive than they would have been absent revelations of the NSA’s eavesdropping rests on the assumption that autocrats design their domestic surveillance programs around the American example and in response to the U.S. government’s jawboning.  Anyone who’s spent much time studying authoritarian regimes knows that’s simply not true. Under all but the most exceptional circumstances, autocrats worry vastly more about internal threats than external ones, and they build and maintain their machines of surveillance and repression in response to those domestic pressures. International norms probably do shape human-rights practices in authoritarian regimes at the margins, but the U.S. is not and never has been the lone vessel of these norms, and the effects of normative change pale in comparison to the immediacy of threats from domestic rivals.

Foreign governments can sometimes affect this calculus, but their influence is usually modest at best. The U.S. routinely shames other governments for their repressive practices in the State Department’s annual human rights reports, but I can’t think of a single case in which that shaming alone has prodded an authoritarian regime confronting a domestic threat to change course. Countries like Russia and China and Iran are already surveilling their populations on a massive scale in spite of years of cajoling by the U.S. government, Human Rights Watch, and many others because they fear their own citizens a lot more. When it comes to spying on their own people, officials in regimes like those hardly need any encouragement.

What does seem to help crack open authoritarian regimes some of the time are material threats—things like economic sanctions or suspensions of valued aid programs—especially with regimes that depend heavily on foreign largesse. Still, there’s no reason to believe those levers will become any more brittle because the U.S. does some vaguely similar things at home. That would only matter if foreign autocrats thought that accusations of hypocrisy on this issue could dissuade Congress or the president from following through on their threats against them. For better and for worse, I just can’t see that happening. The intervening variable in that equation is the American electorate, and those kinds of accusations probably aren’t going to weigh heavily on the minds of voters, especially when so many of them don’t even seem to mind what the NSA is doing to them.

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