Judging from polls, Edward Snowden hasn’t enjoyed much success in rousing the American public to share his anger over Washington’s “architecture of oppression,” as he called it. But by becoming an international fugitive, the National Security Agency leaker may well have succeeded at rallying a good part of the rest of the world around his cause.
Call his protectors the Anti-American Network. They are a kind of geopolitical underground of informally aligned nations that has been growing since the end of the Cold War, and they are united by a mistrust of America as the “lone superpower.” Snowden is riding this network like a fugitive slave helped by the Underground Railroad of the 19th century. He has hopped from Hong Kong, where the quasi-independent government issued a blunt snub to Washington (apparently with Beijing’s say-so), to Moscow, which refuses to extradite him. And Snowden has asked for asylum in Ecuador, which is already harboring WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange, and where he would arrive by way of Cuba.
There are other actual and potential members of the Anti-American Network, of course: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, a number of fence-sitting Asian and European nations, and more. The network was galvanized by President Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion, and although it appeared to fade a bit with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 (who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, recall, mostly for not being Bush), it has gained new life with Obama’s perceived overuse of drone warfare and with revelations that the U.S. government is spying on ... apparently everybody—Americans, allies, and enemies alike.
Recently, Snowden placed his fate in the hands of the informal leader of the Anti-American Network, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. That meant the country’s president controlled the ultimate instrument of payback to Washington. As a former KGB colonel who’s no slouch at cracking down on dissent himself, Putin must be at least somewhat sympathetic to Washington’s desire to bring in America’s most prominent dissident. On Tuesday, Putin indicated that he didn’t want Snowden to remain in a transit zone at a Russian airport, arguing, “The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia.”
But from all the evidence, Putin also loves to “stick his thumb in [America’s] eye,” as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN, calling the Russian president an “old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire.” Whatever Putin may be saying now about “the businesslike character of our relations with the U.S.,” it is evident that Russia’s foreign policy is largely shaped by its leader’s desire to meddle with America and its global designs. He backs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria against the U.S.-aided rebels; Moscow opposes stringent sanctions on Iran, where it is building a nuclear reactor; and Putin pressured Obama to retreat from a European missile-defense system, angering the Poles and the Czechs who would have hosted it. Above all, Putin was incensed by the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law, named after a slain Russian lawyer, under which Washington can penalize Russian human-rights abuses.
Still, there is more to this Anti-American Network—and to Russian foreign policy—than simple resentment of Washington. “The Russian leadership is increasingly frustrated with the United States and American foreign policy that, from their point of view, is built around interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” says Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest. “They believe it should be fundamentally up to people who live inside a particular country to decide how they are ruled.” He points out that Washington and Moscow weren’t that far apart on Syria until last year, when Obama bluntly called for Assad’s ouster. This has continued to be the sticking point.
There is an element of hypocrisy to this, of course, because Moscow cavalierly interferes in the affairs of nations it considers to be part of its “sphere,” such as Georgia and Ukraine, just as China does with nations in East Asia. Nonetheless, there are enough nations that, like Russia and China, want to reanimate the concept of noninterference (which, after all, was a founding principle of the United Nations) against the perception of U.S. meddling that the Anti-American Network may well grow—and become a powerful countervailing force to U.S. influence.
Exhibit A: the summit in March between Putin and China’s new president, Xi Jinping. In a new article in The National Interest journal, two of America’s leading foreign policy pundits, Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes, noted Xi’s comment at the meeting that Beijing and Moscow should “resolutely support each other in efforts to protect national sovereignty, security, and development interests.” Putin agreed, declaring that “the strategic partnership between us is of great importance on both a bilateral and global scale.”
Gelb and Simes play down the idea that Russia and China might adopt a formal alliance against the United States; both countries, they write, in the long run “need more from the United States and the European Union than from each other.” But they do suggest that Moscow and Beijing might well “play a game of triangular diplomacy similar to the Nixon/Kissinger strategy of the 1970s. In this scenario, Moscow and Beijing could dangle the prospect of a potential alliance or ad hoc cooperative arrangement with the other to gain leverage over Washington and put the United States at a bargaining and power disadvantage.” Precisely the disadvantage that Edward Snowden has helped to place Washington in today.