Snowden fallout: India’s meow, Brazil’s roar

Sreeram Chaulia
Dr. Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His latest book is ‘Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister’.
Snowden fallout: India’s meow, Brazil’s roar
Contrasting reactions in India and Brazil to revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the US government’s intrusive surveillance of communications in the two countries are a study in varying diplomatic style, substance and context.

Recent confirmation from journalists working with Snowden that India was a prime victim caught in the crosshairs of the NSA’s megalithic data-sweeping operations did not deter Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from visiting Washington and keeping his date with President Barack Obama on September 27.

India’s phlegmatic take is the antithesis of the mass indignation in Brazil when it became known that the NSA had been snooping into emails and phone conversations of the commanding heights of its economic and political institutions. A nationalistic wave of disgust propelled President Dilma Rousseff to go to the extent of canceling her scheduled state visit to the US, demanding an unqualified apology from Obama, and lambasting the US for violation of human rights, privacy and international law in front of the UN General Assembly.

Rousseff called a spade a spade and snubbed Obama without mincing words. It was an act of international bravado and regional leadership that steeled the spine of Latin America, which has been seething against Washington’s imperious tampering of airspace permissions for Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Bolivians have condemned European “aggression” at the behest of America and are threatening to sue the US for “crimes against humanity,” while the Venezuelans have kept up a steady verbal barrage against Washington’s “crazy provocations.”

Ecuador has initiated discussions among the 12-member Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which includes Brazil, to work on a new multilateral Internet defense system that would protect the entire Latin American region against US hacking and espionage. Collective regional action, which is advanced in South America despite plurality in ideology and regime type, has found its newest cohesive cause— halting the American ‘Snooperman’ juggernaut. 

Stoic or strategic?

However, the fire and brimstone of the Latin Americans did not infect India one bit. On the eve of the third summit meeting with Obama since 2009, Singh’s endorsement of a “global strategic partnership” between India and the US sounded as though Snowden’s undeniable bombshells were bad dreams that New Delhi had long ago forgotten and forgiven.

Indian officials have downplayed media disclosures based on Snowden’s leaks that show US intelligence agencies planted bugging devices in Indian diplomatic missions in Washington and New York. The nonchalant refrain in New Delhi is that such spying is part and parcel of standard, tacitly accepted practice that every host nation with technical abilities does to foreign missions on its soil.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)

Yet, ever since the Snowden earthquake erupted earlier this year, one hard reality stares at India: that it was the fifth most spied-upon nation under the NSA’s top-secret PRISM and Boundless Informant programs. Brazil and Russia were actually further down the list than India. Snowden’s American journalist associate, Glenn Greenwald, told an Indian newspaper that India was in the US’s top five target list (behind Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt) because it is “an increasingly important country in virtually every realm: economic, political, diplomatic and military.” He added that the NSA’s stealing of metadata and specific contents of e-mail systems and phone calls is “a question of power” and gives the US government relative bargaining advantage with a rising state such as India.

The deafening silence in the Indian establishment toward what is obviously a strategic foreign threat to the confidentiality of its public and private communications could be construed as quietly conceding that India is bound to be the object of external prying eyes due to its rising global profile. India’s foreign policy bureaucracy is schooled in traditional realpolitik mores which accept certain immoral and illegal actions that are routinely permitted under the garb of statecraft. As one unnamed official said to an Indian newspaper coolly, whatever the NSA does is unsurprisingly common and “as good as your technology and intent” can delve into another’s affairs.  

Here, India’s foreign policy mandarins are suggesting matter-of-factly that whichever nation has the capabilities for cyber-attacks and surveillance will understandably deploy them for its security interests to the detriment of its allies and enemies. But apart from rationalizing why the US has trained its cyber guns on India so attentively, New Delhi has yet to diplomatically make such actions costlier for the Americans by going down the angry pathway of Brazil.

The China factor

In contrast to the response against the US spying, India’s government and much of the country’s elite English-language media raise an outcry whenever news emerges about China’s cyber-warfare and espionage directed at India. Indian people have been fed enough alerts about China’s repeated cyber-attacks on high-profile computers and critical infrastructure of their country. The impression that China poses the No. 1 cyber threat to India is ingrained in the minds of our strategic thinkers and commentariat, and buttressed by the outstanding territorial and geopolitical disputes and competition between the two Asian giants.

Since few Indian strategists believe that the US poses the same level of threat or obstacle to India’s ambitions in the world as China does, there is a clear double standard in their outrage towards Beijing’s cyber-attacks and seeming indifference about American cyber snooping on Indian assets. If there was an opinion poll in India as to which country poses a greater peril to our national security, and the options were USA and China, the latter would win by a majority. Hence the ambivalence in the overall Indian discourse regarding the obvious damage that the NSA has been inflicting on India’s national security.

Related to this differential approach in India to the cyber-spying menace from China and the US is a geostrategic belief that New Delhi should not antagonize the latter too much because it helps keep the former under check in Asia. Crying foul about the NSA’s violations of India’s sovereignty is seen as counterproductive when New Delhi needs some of Washington’s technical assistance to beef up its cyber defenses. In July 2011, India and the US signed a Cybersecurity Agreement to “advance global security and counter terrorism.”

The unspoken elephant in the room of that agreement is China, which is seen by both India and the US as their principal rival in cyberspace. The sensational fallout of the Snowden leaks has not shaken this conviction, even though India’s cyber sentinels privately agree that they “cannot trust the Americans.” The public line in India is that US cyber-intrusions are a non-issue or a minor irritant but Chinese web attacks and espionage are grave threats.

AFP Photo / Wang Zhao

Before meeting Obama on Sept. 27, Singh mentioned that he sees the US as “a key source of technology, investment and innovation” for India, all three of which do not apply in the Chinese case even if Beijing wanted to share some of them with New Delhi. As India and China reside in the same geological space and compete on land and sea in the same locales, any cyber cooperation or coordination between the two is mythical due to a complete lack of strategic trust. On the other hand, some form of joint work on cyber defense, if not offense, between India and America is not implausible, despite the Snowden controversy.

A cyber tango between India and the US fits within the larger realpolitik concept of “bandwagoning,” wherein a weaker state decides to join hands with a more powerful one because the cost of opposing the latter exceeds the benefit. China’s faster economic and military growth than India and the former’s aim of catching up with and overtaking the US, imply that Beijing is more in a “counterbalancing” frame of mind toward Washington. As long as India is not in China’s league in material power, a soft form of bandwagoning by India with the US (without entering into a formal alliance), particularly in the cyber domain, is considered inevitable by Indian strategists. 

Cyber deterrence: Political and technical

If Brazil has chosen an unambiguous path of diplomatic defiance and shaming of the US for its unwarranted cyber surveillance, there is also a domestic political angle behind it. “Lulaism,” the philosophy of a middle path for Brazil in terms of its state-market balance and foreign policy, named for the charismatic former President Lula da Silva, is an ideology of the left. Brazil, for all its mixture of private and public sectors, is governed by a socialist Workers’ Party that struggled against US-backed military dictatorship back in the 1980s. The hemispheric geographical closeness of Brazil to the US and the historic attempt of the entire Latin American leftist bloc to shake off Yankee neo-colonialism are the main drivers of a radical foreign policy that is instinctively anti-American. Seeking international accountability from the NSA comes easily in such an environment and can be popular. 

India, on the other hand, has leftist political parties only on the fringe. Both the mainstream national parties, the ruling center-left Congress and the opposition center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believe in the imperative of maintaining strategic closeness with Washington. These parties pooh-pooh barbs from the left about kowtowing to “American imperialism” and tend to avoid taking up cudgels against Washington as much as possible. In the worldview of these parties, friendliness with the US is not a sign of pusillanimity or surrender, but of farsighted nationalism. The middle classes and the English-language news media in India also have a largely pro-American and pro-Western slant, especially compared to their hawkish appraisals of China.

Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) wear masks of Gujarat state Chief Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, during an election rally in New Delhi on September 29, 2013 (AFP Photo / Sajjad Hussain)

Given such rooted political obstacles to denouncing the US for its cyber intrusions from global podiums, India will have to develop a technical deterrence that is commensurate and robust. The investments in cyber warfare that the Indian government has made thus far are not paltry, and some aspects of the NSA’s bag of tricks unveiled by Snowden’s escapade were known a priori to Indian technical agencies. What India is doing now in light of the Snowden scandal is to beef up protections for most vulnerable points of its digital infrastructure that the Americans penetrated.

Snowden’s expose is not the first warning that prompted India’s cyber warriors to plug the loopholes. An estimated 8.3 percent of the computers infected by the Stuxnet computer worm, which the US and Israel launched in 2009-10 to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, were located in India. New Delhi has come a long way since Stuxnet in mounting credible defenses to its communications systems. Snowden is another canary in the mine, pushing India’s web-based warriors to improved ways of fighting and anticipating in cyber space.

Wielding the ‘big stick’ of cyber power

Although Brazil has outdone India in its political courage and verbal remonstration against American cyber imperialism, it must be remembered that both these BRICS nations refused to offer asylum to Edward Snowden when he applied before finally finding safety in Russia. Both Brazil and India have booming two-way trade accounts with America and both are also known for cautious diplomacy that can be vexing for radicals but which is founded upon biases and interests of the business and political elites of these two countries.

In the long run, both Brazil and India will do well to heed former US President Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In terms of national capabilities, it is less relevant whether Rousseff labels a criminal as criminal at the UN and more important that emerging powers nourish their cyber sinews and close the gap with the US in Internet dominance. Cyber power is now an integral ingredient of overall national power. Shrillness in diplomacy never was and will be a substitute to a national mission for cyber preparedness and cyber greatness.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.