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Snowden leaks now hurting US exports, so is spying worth it?

Snowden leaks now hurting US exports, so is spying worth it?

Yesterday Peter McCawley noted that revelations of Australian spying on Indonesia are threatening to damage bilateral trade talks.

Today, more evidence that the Snowden leaks are having direct economic consequences: Brazil has announced that Swedish firm Saab will fill an order for 36 fighter jets for the Brazilian Air Force. Reputable media outlets are saying that one reason Brazil snubbed American firm Boeing for this prize contract was the NSA spying controversy. It was revealed in September that the NSA has spied on the communications of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff subsequently postponed a visit to Washington in protest.

Note the subtle inference in my summary: its the leaks that are doing economic damage. The other way to look at it, of course, is that it's the spying that did the damage. No spying, no leaks.

Which gets us to the heart of the debate we're having in Australia (addressed yesterday by Steve Grenville) in light of the leaks regarding Australian spying on the Indonesian president and his wife: is it worth it? Does the risk of leaks outweigh the benefits of the information gathered? Hugh White addressed this point in a recent column: [fold]

...we have to be realistic about how much intelligence really contributes to making good decisions. That depends a lot on the kind of decisions being made. It can be vital at the tactical level, in conducting military or police operations. But it is likely to be much less use for making decisions at the higher political and strategic level. And that seems to be the level where we are most likely to damage the relationship with Jakarta.

I don't entirely agree with Hugh's tactical/strategic distinction. Instead, I'd place the emphasis on short-term versus long-term decision-making. I can easily see how intelligence on a country's national leadership could be useful in the midst of a high-level negotiation. It might even be a stabilising influence during a crisis, if it helps one side understand the intentions of the other.

But when it comes to long-term strategic decision-making, intelligence on the private thinking of leaders is probably less useful. Take the upcoming Australian Defence White Paper, for instance, which will be premised on an assessment of strategic trends that go back several decades and look forward ten or more years as well. These trends are a combination of vast economic, social and political forces over time-spans which generally exceed those of individual leaders.

Of course the ideas and policies of leaders are important in shaping those trends, but for the most part, those ideas are not a secret, and even if they are secret initially, they reveal themselves in good time (eg. what difference would it have made to Australia to know weeks or months in advance about the economic reforms Deng Xiaoping introduced in China in the late 1970s?).

The big-picture international trends that will shape Australian strategic policy over the next ten years are well known. The trick is not in revealing information, but understanding the significance of what we already know and responding to it appropriately.

Photo by Flickr user Okko Pyykko.

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