It is now nearly six-and-a-half years since Julian Assange and Wikileaks started releasing official government documents, revealing to the publics of the world information deemed to be classified and forbidden from exhibition, because such release might injure the security of particular states and by extension (in the eyes of their governments) the safety of citizens.
Up to the present the individual mainly responsible for the acts of exposure, Julian Assange, remains in London, in the Ecuadorian Embassy where he has been granted asylum by the government of that country, a refugee from those who would like to prosecute him. But now he has company of a sort, though geographically distant, and in some measure an accomplice, the American Edward Snowden, a sometime contractor to the American security system, irritating the United States and indeed other Western governments with a new release of documents.
Unlike the play and counterplay between the global contestants during the Cold War, however, the present incident seems to make for the embarrassment of a variety of states, and in particular China, the sovereign of Hong Kong to which Snowden first fled, and then Russia which no doubt, as the Soviet Union in an earlier time, would have been overjoyed at the present political gymnastics over security secrets.
But Russia on this occasion, under pressure by the United States, but unwilling to look like an accomplice of that country in such matters, has Snowden in the no-man’s land of a Russian airport, obviously having refused him refugee status, and desperate for some other country to relieve its temporary protector of its predicament.
The decisive end of the Cold War has indeed been symbolically signalled by this event, as the People’s Republic, now well integrated into the one-world economy of the era of globalisation clearly wishes to do nothing that can appear to excessively embarrass a United States of America from which the President Xi Jinping has recently returned after discussions with his American counterpart on a further rationalization of political and economic relations between them. And President Putin, while declaring that his government will not extradite Snowden to the United States has been as clear as anyone would have wished, about the limits to which he will go, by his statement that the present time is inappropriate for any incident that could affect the reasonably mutual acceptability of present relations between his country and the United States.
With the European governments having shown their hand of loyalty to the American position through their recent refusal of overflight permission to the aircraft transporting Bolivian President Evo Morales, the repatriation of Snowden has now been left by the US, and indeed by Russia itself, in the hands of one or other of what used to be called Third World countries, to oblige.
But here the door is closed as well, since those sympathetic to the US hardly wish to be embroiled in the matter (they have seen Britain having enough trouble with Assange); while on the other hand, as indicated in the recent statements of President Maduro of Venezuela, apparently supported by the Governments of Bolivia and Ecuador, there is a willingness to transport Snowden only on the basis that there will be no handing over to the US.
Ironically, the announcement by President Maduro came one day before he was rapturously welcomed by Caricom heads of government to their thirty-fourth meeting of the Community. No public mention seems to have been made of the Snowden incident, for indeed it will have been well recognized that any indication of a position favourable to Venezuela would bring the wrath of their American neighbour down on them, so soon after the visit of Vice President Biden. And this, in a context in which Caricom states are looking forward to a sympathetic orientation to their current economic predicaments from the United States.
But President Maduro’s visit does show how deeply, in the current period of ideological fluidity among states, our international relationships have become diverse, and governments are obviously being careful to separate issues of serious concern to themselves, from the general declarations of support that characterized the diplomacy of countries like Guyana and Jamaica in the non-alignment era of the mid-1970s and after.
Both the anxiety and relief of the Russians about Maduro’s initiative has been palpable, with the Chairman of the lower house of the Russian Parliament characterizing it as “the best solution.” It is now left to be seen how, if the Government of Venezuela keeps its word, the movement of Snowden is to be effected, indication having been already given by various European countries that they would not be sympathetic to flights over their jurisdictions that do not have as their ultimate destination the United States, and the deposit of Snowden there.
In one sense, the Snowden incident cannot really be seen as having a serious impact on the strategic relationships between the US and other countries, but more of an embarrassment to the United States from which it would wish to recover, by way of demonstrating the serious view that it takes of the penetration of its security systems, as would any other state.
Some commentators in the United States have themselves argued that the reaction of the US must be severe, in order to indicate, as the British have done in relation to Wikileaks Assange, that breaches of the law in the sphere of security can under no circumstances be tolerated or condoned. On the other hand, there is a concern among those referred to as liberals in the US, that while the Snowden leaks cannot be legally justified, they do reveal the extent of the American espionage system, and they raise questions as to whether it is all justified.
Those with not too long memories will recall the publication, then in the era of the Cold War, of the Pentagon Papers about the intrigues of the US-Vietnam War, for which the person subsequently judicially accused, Daniel Ellsberg, was never convicted. No doubt they feel that, while the law must be upheld and government shown to be serious about the security of its activities, the intense significance attributed to the Snowden incident shall pass away, and seem relatively insignificant as time goes on.
In the meantime, a curious, but not particularly aggrieved or desperate rest of the world waits to see how Snowden’s fate is resolved, and whether, from our perspective in this part of the world, it has the effect of a worsening of certain areas of US-hemispheric relations.