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How Much Diplomatic Persuasion Does U.S. Wield in Snowden Affair?

July 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though some have used Edward Snowden as an outlet to antagonize the U.S., no country has yet offered him asylum. Ray Suarez talks to P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, and James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the diplomatic fallout over the NSA leaks.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I’m joined by P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs. He’s now a fellow at George Washington University. And James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Well, P.J. Crowley, Edward Snowden has thrown the net wide, advanced industrial democracies, developing countries, Latin America, Asia, Europe, NATO allies, military neutrals. No takers. What does this tell us about the persuasive power of the United States?

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs: It tells you about Edward Snowden as a hot potato. And when the music stops, no country wants to be or no leader wants to be the one left holding Edward Snowden in its lap.

Obviously, the United States has made clear it wants to see Edward Snowden back in the United States before a judge and jury, and has been successful, I think, particularly in this hemisphere, with leaders who are competing to be the American antagonist in chief who have expressed rhetorical support for Edward Snowden, but have yet to actually offer him asylum.

RAY SUAREZ: James Lewis, how do you explain what P.J. just mentioned, that even countries that look for opportunities to embarrass or antagonize the United States and might very much want to know what’s on Edward Snowden’s hard drives, they aren’t taking him either?

JAMES LEWIS, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Part of it is that what Snowden has on his hard drives may not be as valuable as he thought.

A lot of places already knew we were spying on them. The other thing is, he is a hot potato. Countries are weighing, what do I get out of taking him? What do I lose? And so they’re looking at this as a business arrangement. Do they get some significant advantage maybe in the contest to succeed Hugo Chavez? Is that worth annoying the United States? And most of them come to the conclusion that it’s not.

RAY SUAREZ: What do I lose? What does leverage consist of in 2013?

JAMES LEWIS: Well, with Ecuador, it was pretty straightforward.

There is an upcoming vote on trade that gave the U.S. tremendous relations. With China and Russia, what they would get from Snowden doesn’t justify damaging their most important relationship. The Europeans who are allies, who is left? Really small countries that don’t like America and want to maybe play a little fast and loose with the law.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the map of the world, P.J. Crowley, a little less promising than it was a generation ago for someone who is an international fugitive?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, of course, for someone like Edward Snowden, there are places he might want to go and there are probably places he doesn’t want to go.

Pyongyang might be a destination for him, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I think there’s a difference between — in a globalized world, there is a difference between political gain and real national interests. I think with the — say, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who recognizes that the economic relationship between the United States and Ecuador is very important to him, he obviously has sheltered Julian Assange in his embassy in London for the past year or so.

Assange was petitioning Ecuador to accept Edward Snowden. But it was a respectful call from the vice president to President Correa, a demonstration of respect, but also probably I’m sure a review of the interest that Ecuador has, and the implications, as Jim was mentioning, that not only is the executive branch trying to manage the Snowden issue, but Congress is spring-loaded to punish whoever might be willing to accept him.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, James Lewis, Edward Snowden has gotten this worldwide attention because of what he’s taken out of computers. The Chinese didn’t make it easy for him to remain there. Would that have complicated the upcoming bilateral meetings between China and the United States over cyber-espionage and cyber-crime?

JAMES LEWIS: To come up with an original phrase, Snowden is a hot potato and nobody wants him, because it’s just going to mess up the relationship, and particularly for the Chinese, where you had President Xi come to California, a good summit. Xi is talking about resetting the relationship with the U.S. The last thing he needs is Edward Snowden showing up in Hong Kong.

So, they were eager to get rid of him and they did a good job. They managed to annoy the U.S. and Russia at the same time without getting a lot of tar on themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, earlier in our tape report, P.J., we saw Jen Psaki. You have been there. Being asked the question, you have to answer it, but you don’t want to say much.

Is there a lot that goes on in the back channels that we may never know about this case and others of its like?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, it’s a careful balancing act.

Clearly, both publicly and privately, the United States has told the world and particular countries, this is important to us, we want this guy back. By the same token, you don’t want to make Edward Snowden the face of any relationship, the be-all and end-all of any relationship. I think that’s one of the reasons why a pretty sophisticated play by China.

They were facing a legal process in Hong Kong that might have taken months. You can see with Vladimir Putin, who now has him, wants to get rid much him and has no one to hand him off to, the Chinese look at this and say, why do I want this complication? They whispered in his ear, you have got to go. They move to the side.

I think what we saw yesterday in the interplay over the potential that he might land in Evo Morales’ airplane, not a case of the United States playing offense. I think it was a case of countries playing defense, because if you’re a European leader right now, your best friend is the United States, very important relationship.

You have got some public sentiment in Europe. It’s not so much about Snowden, per se, but he revealed some things that touch on privacy in Europe, a very sensitive issue, so there is some public sympathy for what Snowden represents. And these leaders one by one just said, I can’t take a risk that Snowden is on that airplane, so why do I want to walk into that briar patch?

RAY SUAREZ: James Lewis, there was anger in Europe, feigned or real, about the revelations this week about spying on Europeans.

The president of Russia said, yes, Edward Snowden can stay, but he can’t keep releasing things. And then he almost caught himself and said, and that may sound strange coming out of my lips.

Is this a game where all the players understand they have an interest, even if they’re not friends?

JAMES LEWIS: Yes. And I think President Putin wins the prize for the best line so far in this episode, but everyone is looking at this as a political issue. No one is looking at it as Snowden, per se. They’re asking, how would this affect my relations with the U.S.? What do I get out of it? What do I get that’s a benefit from giving this kid asylum, particularly when the stuff he has on his computer, they may already have or at least know about?

So he’s in an awkward place, and every country is looking at this as a political issue.

RAY SUAREZ: James Lewis, P.J. Crowley, good to talk to you both.

JAMES LEWIS: Thank you.

P.J. CROWLEY: Thanks, Ray.