Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s sneaky omniscience remind us that the West isn’t always a useful category. It’s more useful, sometimes, to consider the Anglosphere.
The NSA’s snooping on Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, caused little consternation in Western capitals or the Western press. The Economist, for example, quoted anonymous American officials saying “that only the naive were astonished to hear that the NSA monitors other governments. Some in Washington will see the cancellation of the first state visit by a Brazilian president since 1995 as a disproportionate reaction. It may confirm their view that Brazil is a perennially difficult partner.” The magazine clearly agreed, helpfully suggesting that Brazil’s suspicions of the US were confined to Brasilia and its political class.
Matters became more complicated when the governments of France, Germany and Spain discovered that the NSA was both conducting mass surveillance of their citizens and listening in to the private communications of their heads of government. Angela Merkel was so incensed that she called Barack Obama to give him a piece of her mind.
The NSA and its proxies tried the Brazilian Defence: everyone spies on allies, Merkel is just acting outraged to play to a domestic political constituency, only the naďve would pretend that states don’t spy on each other, and so on. The US intelligence chief, James Clapper, produced a masterful, if ungrammatical, example of bureaucratic spook-speak in the NSA’s defence: “As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business, leadership intentions, in whatever form that’s expressed, is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze.” This was a brave attempt to make tapping the German chancellor’s phone seem routine, but no one was buying. This wasn’t some posturing south American country which didn’t know its place; this was Europe’s greatest economic power, one of the US’s principal allies, a fulcrum of the Western alliance.
So the various arms of the US government began damage control: the White House declared that Merkel wasn’t being spied on currently and wouldn’t be spied on in the future, Obama promised to reform the NSA, the senator, Dianne Feinstein, tireless defender of the NSA, did an about face and declared her total opposition to the practice of spying on allies.
But the real revelation in all of this (at least for the lay public) was that there were, in fact, American allies who were never spied upon by the NSA, whose ‘leadership intentions’, to use Clapper’s euphemism, were neither collected or analysed. This select group of the trusted wasn’t constituted by a formal geo-political alliance or union like Nato or the EU; the only criterion for inclusion was a tribal sense of belonging. You couldn’t apply to be a member of the unspied-upon, you had to have been at some point of time, one of Great Britain’s white settler colonies.
There are five members of this group of nations (called the Five Eyes) that share intelligence without spying on each other. These are the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Five Eyes originate in a secret intelligence sharing treaty signed in 1946 between the UK and the US and later extended to include three other nations, all dominions of the old, white Commonwealth. This core group later began to share intelligence with other European and ‘Western’ allies, but these third parties were never granted the immunity from being spied upon that the Five Eyes enjoyed. Merkel made pointed reference to this in a European Union meeting, noting that David Cameron was safe from NSA snooping in a way that other EU heads of government were not.
Why is this important? It is important because it helps us understand the formal reality of an Anglosphere that overlaps with the ‘West’ but is also separate from it. In an informal way we know that there is an English-speaking first world, an Anglosphere that shares to a remarkable degree a common popular culture made up of music, writing, film and television. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe might be from Australia and New Zealand but culturally they are stars of the Anglosphere, as welcome in Hollywood as Americans would be.
The ur-text of the Anglosphere is Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples. No one reads Churchill’s multi-volume epic today, but the truth is that the white English-speaking peoples chronicled and celebrated by Churchill, have an ongoing collective history. The Anglosphere is to the West, what the Gulf Stream is to the Atlantic: it is of it but also distinct from it, with its own motion and a distinct temperature.
This apartness is periodically made visible in times of geo-political crisis. The Iraq war is the classic example of this. One of the historical characteristics of the Anglosphere is that the countries that comprise it go to war together. For a hundred years the armies of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have fought the same wars on the same side. In the beginning the dominions fought for the Mother Country, now they fight for America. Australia, for example, is a permanent part of any American-sponsored coalition of the willing.
When the US invaded Iraq, the UK and Australia were the only two Western countries that committed substantial numbers of troops to the war effort. France and Germany did not. France opposed the invasion and the kind of hostility this provoked in the Anglosphere’s media and its political class nearly made the notion of a ‘West’ moot. From French capitalism (too dirigiste) to French fries (rechristened ‘freedom fries’), it was open season on Jacques Chirac and his countrymen, best known through that surreal time as cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys.
If the Iraq war pulled the ‘West’ apart, it consolidated the Anglosphere so powerfully that John Howard and Tony Blair began to behave like pro-consuls of an Anglophone empire centred in Washington, rather than prime ministers of sovereign countries. John Howard, self-confessed cricket ‘tragic’, despatched contingents of Australian soldiers to die for America as if they were armed touring sides while Tony Blair once memorably offered to act as an American proxy in the Middle East to spare Condoleeza Rice the embarrassment of likely failure.
The end of the Iraqi misadventure and the passage of time has papered over the cracks in the Western alliance so it is useful to be reminded by Snowden that the Anglosphere is a geopolitical reality, not a fuzzy historical affinity nor just a cultural bond nurtured by a shared language. To know about these Five Eyes, which spied upon the world but kept nothing from each other, is to know that these five countries are, in effect, one meta-national union; you don’t keep secrets from yourself.
‘Anglosphere’ is perhaps the wrong term for this entity because it doesn’t convey the sense of purpose that animates this union. The UK’s chronic alienation from the EU and Australia’s unease at being anchored off Asia are a testament to the pull of that discreet Leviathan, the Anglophone empire. Invisible in this era of nation states, it remains, as Snowden reminds us, the most omniscient and self-aware historical actor in the world.