Edward Snowden

If This Is a New Cold War, Who's the Enemy Supposed to Be?

The second superpower rears its head again.


Why did you resign?

It's disorienting to see Edward Snowden charged with espionage. Legal definitions aside, people generally conceive of spies as somebody's agents, extracting information for a firm or a foreign country. But if the NSA whistlebower was a spy, he was spying for the public. Not exactly your standard espionage plot.

That may be one reason so many people have started reheating their Cold War metaphors, a trend my colleague Nick Gillespie noted in The Daily Beast this morning. If we can rewrite the Snowden story in those old Robert Ludlum terms, it's easier to organize the news into a familiar narrative.

Hence articles like David Francis' bizarre piece on Snowden in the Fiscal Times, which strives mightily not just to reimagine the modern multipolar world as a conflict between two forces but to sort those forces into simple categories of bad guys and good. Declaring that "with the defeat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the threat of a spectacular terror attack conducted by a large, organized group are diminishing," Francis claims that

Goofy indeed.

countries are lining up behind either the United States or China based on broad governing philosophies. Authoritarian powers like Pakistan have aligned with the Chinese and Russians. The United States maintains relationships with democracies like the United Kingdom and Germany, while courting emerging democracies like India, a nuclear power that happens to be right next to Pakistan, also a nuclear power.

At the same time, smaller countries are pledging loyalty based on political ideology and perceived benefit. Iran, North Korea and Syria have strong relationships with Russia and China, as they enable these countries to continue authoritarian rule. The same can be said of South American countries with authoritarian tendencies like Venezuela and Ecuador.

More democratic countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brazil and Argentina have joined the American alliance. Former Soviet republics like Georgia and Kazakhstan struggle to break free of Moscow and align themselves with the west.

You'd never suspect from reading this that the U.S. pours aid into, say, the authoritarian Gulf states (and did not cease to pour it when it looked like a democratic movement might topple the dictatorship in Bahrain). For that matter, you wouldn't know that Pakistan gets substantial sums from Washington as well as Beijing. Much as it may pain some pundits to admit it, global geopolitics is not an existential struggle between good and evil. It isn't even a bipolar struggle between the U.S. and China. The one glimmer of truth in Francis' account is the fact that Snowden's destinations of China, Russia, and Ecuador all are "quiet rivals or are downright hostile toward the United States." Not because they're part of a power bloc, and not because Snowden supports their policies, but because that's who's most likely to be welcoming when you're a political refugee trying to avoid an American jail cell.

But suppose we reach for a different Cold War–flavored metaphor, one that has mutated a bit since it was first deployed. A decade ago, as a global movement coalesced to oppose the drive toward war with Iraq, it briefly became fashionable to describe an emerging "second superpower" that wasn't a nation-state at all. The most influential expression of this idea was probably James F. Moore's 2003 article "The Second Superpower Rears Its Beautiful Head":

Second prize is a set of steak knives.

The collective power of texting, blogging, instant messaging, and email across millions of actors cannot be overestimated. Like a mind constituted of millions of internetworked neurons, the social movement is capable of astonishingly rapid and sometimes subtle community consciousness and action.

Thus the new superpower demonstrates a new form of "emergent democracy" that differs from the participative democracy of the US government. Where political participation in the United States is exercised mainly through rare exercises of voting, participation in the second superpower movement occurs continuously through participation in a variety of web-enabled initiatives. And where deliberation in the first superpower is done primarily by a few elected or appointed officials, deliberation in the second superpower is done by each individual—making sense of events, communicating with others, and deciding whether and how to join in community actions. Finally, where participation in democracy in the first superpower feels remote to most citizens, the emergent democracy of the second superpower is alive with touching and being touched by each other, as the community works to create wisdom and to take action.

Ant power!

How does the second superpower take action? Not from the top, but from the bottom. That is, it is the strength of the US government that it can centrally collect taxes, and then spend, for example, $1.2 billion on 1,200 cruise missiles in the first day of the war against Iraq. By contrast, it is the strength of the second superpower that it could mobilize hundreds of small groups of activists to shut down city centers across the United States on that same first day of the war. And that millions of citizens worldwide would take to their streets to rally. The symbol of the first superpower is the eagle—an awesome predator that rules from the skies, preying on mice and small animals. Perhaps the best symbol for the second superpower would be a community of ants. Ants rule from below. And while I may be awed seeing eagles in flight, when ants invade my kitchen they command my attention.

The essay was sometimes frustrating, since Moore had a habit of confusing his ant-power model with the policies he'd like to see passed. He was excessively excited, for example, about various NGO-driven treaties that would not, if enacted, be any less top-down than the forces he was criticizing. (His affection for international institutions was so strong that he even wrote this: "Perhaps too often we attack institutions like the World Bank that might, under the right conditions, actually become partners with us in dealing with the first superpower.") And Moore's examples of the second superpower in action included MoveOn.org, a group devoted to putting its preferred politicians in charge of Superpower #1.

But that's just Moore's politics getting in the way of his analysis. Beneath that fog you still have this inspiring idea of a superpower that isn't a conventional world power at all, one based around individual action and bottom-up collaboration: a place tailor-made for freelance leakers and the groups and technologies that make it easier to spread their information. If you insist on seeing Snowden as a spy, then this is the superpower he's spying for. Not a superpower opposed to America, but one that millions of Americans participate in. More Americans, perhaps, than there are in the U.S. government.

The trouble with a deterritorialized second superpower—this is where the metaphor kind of falls apart—is that it can't grant anyone asylum. That's why Snowden is trying to seek refuge in Ecuador instead of the Autonomous WikiLeaks Favela or the Pirate Party Seastead. Meanwhile, America's authoritarians are already starting to combine the Cold War story with a darker version of the second-superpower idea, aiming not to empower the ants but to stomp on them. Here's Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, with a revolting essay in The Daily Beast:


Snowden's U.S. passport has been rescinded and now he is, in effect, fleeing the U.S. authorities on a WikiLeaks passport. The organization is acting like a digital state with enemies and allies. Fine. Let's treat it accordingly and address the threat WikiLeaks presents not as a simple criminal act by random individuals but as the organized effort of a virtual state. As such, we should employ the full set of tools—ranging from diplomacy and world opinion to espionage and military force—we use when dealing with any other state….

WikiLeaks has made clear its interest in taking on the United States. Let's do now what we failed to with al Qaeda in the decade before 9/11: take it at its word, respect its capabilities and stated intent, and respond with our own not-so-modest capabilities to defend the United States.

Stevens adds that "This is not a moment to get misty-eyed and muddle-headed about freedom of the press or right to know." I would reply that it's not a moment to get misty-eyed and muddle-headed about the Cold War and "digital states." Maybe that's where the real faultline lies: not between international power blocs, but between two visions here at home.

NEXT: WikiLeaks Legal Chief, a Former Spanish Judge, May Represent Snowden

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  1. There’s a man who leads a life of danger
    To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
    With every move he makes another chance he takes
    Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow

    Secret agent man, secret agent man
    They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

    Beware of pretty faces that you find
    A pretty face can hide an evil mind
    Ah, be careful what you say
    Or you’ll give yourself away
    Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

    Secret agent man, secret agent man
    They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

    Secret agent man, secret agent man
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    Swingin’ on the Riviera one day
    And then layin’ in the Bombay alley next day
    Oh no, you let the wrong word slip
    While kissing persuasive lips
    The odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

    Secret agent man, secret agent man
    They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

    Secret agent man

      1. I went home with the waitress
        The way I always do
        How was I to know
        She was with the
        Russians, too?

        I was gambling in Havana
        I took a little risk
        Send lawyers, guns and money
        Dad, get me out of this, hyeah

        1. Don’t tread on an ant, he’s done nothing to you
          There might come a day when he’s treading on you
          Don’t tread on an ant, you’ll end up black and blue
          You cut off his head, legs come looking for you

  2. If This Is a New Cold War, Who’s the Enemy Supposed to Be?


    1. Is this the Cold War?
      Is this just fantasy?

    2. Straight outta’ Long Beach it’s Cold War Kids!

  3. So by your pictures, you’re saying that The Prisoner was a prescient commentary on the eventual, inevitable growth of the surveillance state?

    1. While the alt-text references The Prisoner, the image is from Secret Agent. I think McGoohan vaguely denied that Number 6 was John Drake, anyway. Which was a lie, of course.

      1. Deny away, it was a prescient commentary by creating a non-sequel sequel.

  4. Warboners have been trying to sell the War on Terriers as WWII II for years now.

    1. Constant vigilance is the price we pay to keep those adorable power-hungry bastards from ruling us.

  5. How does the second superpower take action? Not from the top, but from the bottom.

    Sounds like a true democracy. In other words, pure communism. No one wants that.

    1. Sounds like a true democracy. In other words, pure communism. No one wants that.

      Well certainly not the Communists.

  6. Since its the American people who are being spied on then obviously the enemy is the American people.

    After all its the American people who ultimately have the power to defund the NSA, CIA and the other parts of the Security Empire so they are the biggest danger to that Empire..

  7. They say that you’re always fighting the last war you were in; I suppose that applies to the last cold war you were in too, at least for the low foreheads who pass for our chattering classes.

    1. I resent you implying that pundits are neanderthals. Particularly when Ezra Klein is clearly much closer to a marmoset.

      1. I kind of thought he was more like a ferret. Marmosets are primates and therefore slightly intelligent. Klein; not so much.

        1. I’m the spider.

          1. Spider monkeys are no more intelligent than marmosets, JJ. No wonder your comments are essentially the digital equivalent of flinging poo.

            1. Leave it to you to miss a Trek reference.

              1. Don’t be too hard on Epi. He devolved into a paramecium.

        2. Klein is more a lemur that experienced oxygen deprivation in the womb.

      2. How dare you slander marmosets in such a fashion!

    2. For the Forever War versus terrorist, there are no first and last wars, just the one War.

  8. Drake and Number 6 are the same person, but that’s just me.

    1. Who are you?

      1. That would be telling.

    2. Six was such a troubled girl. And now we know why.


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  11. Stevens adds that “This is not a moment to get misty-eyed and muddle-headed about freedom of the press or right to know.”

    Go fuck yourself up the ass with broken off broom handle, Stuart Stevens. You stupid piece of shit.

    1. No shit. It’s no time to get misty-eyed over freedom of the press, but it *is* time to start a new ‘War’ against a faceless, placeless, amorphous (and non-violent) entity? What the fucking fuck?

    2. This Nazi-police-state type of thinking [of Stevens] has permeated almost the entire political spectrum. Fuck them all, definitely.

  12. Cold Civil War

  13. If This Is a New Cold War, Who’s the Enemy Supposed to Be?

    The crime syndicates running Congress and the White House.

  14. For a site that explicitly calls itself “conservative,” I’m rather pleased with the comments in this piece:


    1. That *is* interesting.

  15. “But if the NSA whistlebower was a spy, he was spying for the public…”

    Beg pardon, but didn’t we used to call such a person an “investigative REPORTER?”

  16. This is a dumb excuse, but you have to be blind not to notice that the whole Middle East has basically turned Islamist.

    Do you honestly think they will stop at the Middle East? If not for Charles Martel and Odo before him, Europe would have been conquered long ago.

    That’s sort of the whole point of their religion. To convert the whole planet.

    1. If Islamist = fundamentalist, then I’d have to say that the statistics don’t seem to support that. Yes, the entire Middle East is not a secular humanist polity where women can drive convertibles by themselves on the way to the company where they’re CEOs, but within the moderate segments of the so-called Arab street the particular prejudices that we see as signs of “Islamism” aren’t much different than the average American’s view of polygamy as icky, for instance. Cultural leftovers more than anything else.

      If Islamism = radicalism/terrorism, again, I’d have to argue that protesting in the street isn’t unique to that part of the world. In fact, it’s sort of endemic to almost every country that doesn’t use lethal force to suppress dissent. And, although the ME is definitely a terrorist hotspot, I’d argue that a lot if not most of that is based on nationalist/ethnic movements piggybacking on the idea of a global caliphate just like people used to do with communism. Sure, some are true believers, but most of them are all for the caliphate right up until they get political power and national borders.

      And if Islamism just means “Muslim”, well, yeah, can’t help you there. The whole point of Christianity is to convert unbelievers as well. If Islam is a threat to human rights (which I believe to be true) it’s not alone in that regard.

      1. Except that Christianity outgrew forced conversions at the point of a sword. Maybe not too long ago, what maybe a hundred years since the very last instance? But it has given it up. And forced conversion was never one of the tenets of the religion, just a bad practice by fallible men. And it preaches things like love your neighbor, even if he is a slimy Samaritan. Its adherents may not follow all of its teachings faithfully, but the religion does preach forgiveness, turning the other cheek, peace on Earth, etc.
        Contrast that to Islam, which preaches holy war, supports the already misogynist tribal views of the local population, teaches that it is ok to cheat and lie to non-believers, and is diametrically opposed to the idea of separation of church and state, versus Jesus’s “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”
        I’m not a Christian, myself, but can definitely see which religion I hope my neighbors follow.

  17. Maybe we are at the beginning of an international civil cold war.

    1. Nope, it’s a three way war between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Only its a fake war, with the participating governments using it to keep control of the population, and the ultimate goal is a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

  18. Are some of the original film’s recommendation, I really thought it was heading to see what happened the.

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