Following revelations by the Assange-clone, Edward Snowden, of the scope of the USs National Security Agency's (NSA) spying over almost everyone indiscriminately, the question that has plagued humanity through the ages, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who guards the guardians), has become profoundly pertinent yet again! Oddly, Snowden is now regarded world-wide, especially by allies of the US, as a new (converted American-Russian) cyber-superhero protecting global democracy and freedom, rather than the embarrassing traitor that the US (and now only the US) insists he is.
These revelations in the global media have been followed by a succession of atypical (i.e., outrage accompanied by demands for apologies, assurances, retribution and restitution), as well as more typical (i.e, Everyone does it, or at least tries to, but without the same success as the US) reactions. Why without the same success Perhaps because of: (a) the USs far superior electronic surveillance technology and absurdly large security budget for an economy that is effectively bankrupt; (b) the demonic will of its out-of-control, paranoid, intelligence apparatus to deploy that technology against everybody to its outer limits; (c) the profound US mistrust of the rest of the world, including its supposed friends; and (d) the USs unacknowledged, unapplauded role as the worlds self-appointed, unilaterally-inclined policeman. The more typical reactions imply: Why get so hypocritically worked up about an everyday occurrence; a reality and a fact of life
Yet, despite those reactions, there is, this time, a sense of genuine global public outrage. The worlds modesty and an universal sense of fundamental human decency, both seem to have been violated, casually, carelessly, almost insouciantly. Even so, there seems to be not the slightest concern on the part of the US leadership for transactional propriety in the conduct of human and international relations. Indeed, that view is commonly shared by most of its citizens; especially the ultra-right wing Tea Party lunatics, who see the rest-of-the-world as an existential threat to the US.
On the other side, citizens, supposedly democratic governments, parliaments and political leaders everywhere outside the US (most strongly in Western Europe and Latin America) suddenly feelquite ferociouslythat they can/should no longer take lying down the egregious surveillance excesses of a rapidly waning superpower. The USs intelligence establishment is now seen around the world as going rogue; especially when it is visualised as being supervised by an unqualified, incompetent and fundamentally amoral, if not immoral, President who does not seem to know right from wrong; or believes simplistically that wrong automatically becomes right as long as you are keeping America safe.
Pity that the other rising superpower, China, has been given such an unexpected gift, in such a cack-handed manner, by the supposed guardians of global liberty! China will now feel, quite legitimately, laughing all the way to its battery of supercomputers, that it has the license to go several steps further in spying on and cyber-attacking the world at large. That will happen, especially if the world does not react decisively (and constructively, rather than destructively wringing its hands, emitting a waterfall of words, but doing nothing) in putting this particular Pandora back in her Snowden-opened box.
The spectre, now drawn in caricature around the world, is that of a lame-duck American leader with plummeting ratings, being unhinged by his inability to keep his own house, the Congress, the budget and economy in order. So, he is seemingly getting his jollies by spying on and destabilising others instead; not just the terrorists he is supposed to be protecting us from, but everyone. That includes supposedly friendly allied governments that obviously need to be spied on to keep them on the straight and narrow. It is like seeing a remake of Dr Strangelove produced and directed by Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick; but definitely not Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks or Ron Howard.
This episode reveals quite clearly that YWC (Yes-we-can) Obama is not the person or President we were seduced and beguiled into believing he was. He clearly seems to lack the moral compass and sense of fundamental human decency that his flowery oratory mistakenly suggested he possessed. The sudden crystal clarity of that vision shows that the US government, contrary to the rule of law and natural justice, has been taking its own citizens, and the rest of the world, for granted (if not for a ride) in serially violating their fundamental human rights to privacy and freedom in the name of security (for whom precisely remains unclear!) for a very long time.
The US is now widely seen by everyone, not just Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, to have gone well beyond limits that any democratic government should be allowed to go. Instead, Americathe traditional beacon for liberals, democrats and freedom-lovers around the worldis now behaving no differently from any other organisation purporting to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresentwhether terrorist or otherwisethat aims to achieve the same objectives of subjugating the world to its own will). So, what exactly is the difference between the world being subject to the guardianship of the US, as opposed to that of a cabal of absolute monarchs, dictators or terrorists legitimising their actions on the basis of the same whims In the end it comes to the same thing: we are (the world is) being terrorised in one way or another by an entity that cedes to itself the right to use force and violence unilaterally and covertly over the very society it is supposed to govern democratically and overtly.
This disconcerting QCIC (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes) question assumes broader and more worrying dimensions when one looks more closely at what has been happening since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the relentless decline of western power since 2000, and the extreme paranoia that Islam has created in the west (and, sadly in India) since 9/11, 2001. It is no longer the ambition of any western country to improve the lives of their citizens. Instead, every western government seeking re-election aims to guarantee their citizens safety from the nutters proliferating around the world. Whether in the realm of security surveillance or global finance, all democratically elected governments are now widely abusing their legitimate, democratically endowed, mandates and power to exert excessively intrusive Orwellian influence over citizens. Their excuse is: If you are doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear. But this has been the slogan of every police-state since time began. Who decides what/who is wrong Given the way modern democracies work (or not) citizens seem to be ceding their fundamental human rights to privacy and freedom, sheepishly and supinely, without full regard for the consequences that might ensue. Overbearing government bureaucraciesaccustomed to exercising unbridled power through constant intrusive surveillance over private citizens, in a way that sets unchallenged precedencewill run amok as they are on the verge of doing now. They now have a vested interest in our insecurity.
For example, all the financial information that governments around the world have been collecting, ostensibly to counter drug and human trafficking trades through anti money-laundering (AML) rules and terrorism through CFT (countering the financing of terrorism), requires financial institutions to know their clients (KYC) through due diligence (DD). Such monumentally intrusive financial surveillance has not, unsurprisingly, resulted in reducing drug or human trafficking or the incidence of terrorism. [Of course, the US, but not India, can claim there have been no terrorist attacks on home soil since 2001 simply because the US has succeeded in ring-fencing itself and exporting the effects elsewhere]. Instead much of the financial information collected has been used for tax-extortion by the same governments for obvious reasons. They have bankrupted themselves through cradle-to-grave welfare states they can no longer afford, given the relentless decline in their competitiveness. So, instead of reducing public expenditures on entitlements through rights (which now account for over 50% of their collectives GDPs) they are trying to kill the geese that have laid their golden eggs through tax extortion. Idiotically, India led by a Congress-dominated government imbued with same absurd philosophy has committed itself to going down that same path in the name of inclusion and equity regardless of the risk of bankruptcy (more about which will appear in my future columns).
In short, we seem to have reached an inflexion point where the amount and intensity of surveillance (physical and financial) that the average citizen anywhere in the world is now subjected to, raises fundamental questions about how tenable and reliable our democracies really are in remaining genuinely democratic. Or are they simply becoming camouflage for the emergence of malignant Orwellian states in pseudo-democratic garb Quis custodiet ipsos custodes is an eternal question we would all do well to ponder much more seriously now than we have ever done, before it is too late and we become, through ignorance and negligence, slavish subjects to those whom we mistakenly elect to rule us.
The author is chairman, Oxford International Associates Ltd