America’s enemies rescue whistleblowing ‘traitor’

Edward Snowden, who exposed the US surveillance programme to the world, is on the run – and his flight path is a litany of America’s greatest enemies. Has he become a geopolitical pawn?

When Edward Snowden revealed to the world how US security services had been spying on internet users around the world, he divided public opinion into two sharply opposed camps. Some saw him as a courageous hero fighting for freedom against a sinister surveillance state. To others he was a destructive narcissist who had betrayed the trust of his employers and put American citizens at risk in service of an inflated ego and a misguided set of principles.

What seemed beyond doubt was that Snowden was acting alone: an individual dissident driven by personal objections to the behaviour he had witnessed as an employee of the National Security Agency.

Now, however, the struggle is no longer between one rogue whistleblower and the government he opposed. Instead, Snowden’s actions have become engulfed in a global diplomatic struggle involving some of the world’s greatest powers.

Before his leaks first emerged in British and American media, Snowden fled to Hong Kong to avoid the wrath of the American state, which has charged him with espionage. He hoped that this semi-autonomous region of China, with its ‘spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent’, would respect his act of resistance.

But harbouring an American dissident is a precarious venture. The US demanded Snowden’s return, and began to make veiled threats about the diplomatic results of defiance, saying that Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong could ‘complicate relations’. Hong Kong were desperate to be rid of him; yesterday, he departed to seek refuge elsewhere.

The first stop on Snowden’s escape route is Russia. From there he will fly to Ecuador – where he has applied for asylum – possibly via Cuba. What do all of these countries have in common? Fierce hostility to the USA: Russia is America’s nemesis in international diplomacy and the United Nations, while Cuba and Ecuador are socialist states which define themselves against capitalist America.

Enemy of the state

Many of Snowden’s critics feel they have been proven right by his decision to accept protection from America’s enemies: this is no conscientious objector, they say, just a common traitor and a coward.

But Snowden’s defenders deny that he has positioned himself among the enemies of the state: it is the state, they say, that has made an enemy of him. And faced with harsh punishments, he has little choice but to accept whatever shelter he can find.

Others still think that Snowden matters little: this is proof, they say, that individuals count for nothing in the great game of nations. Few rebels survive long without being taken under the wing of a great power – and once they have compromised their independence, they are little more than pawns.

You Decide

  1. Would you be prepared to criticise your government if it meant abandoning friends and family and living for the rest of your life in a strange country?
  2. Is it an act of betrayal to seek refuge with one of your nation’s enemies?


  1. In pairs, role-play a discussion between an American diplomat demanding Edward Snowden’s return and an Ecuadorian diplomat claiming that he is being persecuted.
  2. ‘Nobody has ever confronted the state alone and won.’ Do you agree? Write a short plan for an essay answering this question, referring if possible to historical figures you have studied.

Some People Say...

“An enemy of my country is my enemy too.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about some diplomatic spat?
Edward Snowden might seem like an isolated and obscure case, but any of us might be confronted by dilemmas similar to his. What would you do, for instance, if you discovered that your employer or government was behaving in an ethically dubious way? And how tightly does loyalty bind you to your country of birth?
If I’ve broken the law, can I just run away to Ecuador?
It’s not that simple: most countries have arrangements called ‘extradition treaties’ which prevent criminals from simply fleeing abroad. But Snowden claims to be seeking asylum from persecution, and governments can use this as a justification for refusing to send him home.

Word Watch

Spying on internet users
Snowden worked on a secret programme called Prism, which allows the US government to collect data shared online with collaboration from companies including Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
A person who reveals that their employer is acting in an illegal or unethical way. If the abuses they reveal are against the law, whistleblowers receive protection under most jurisdictions; but Prism seems to be a legal (if alarming) project, so Snowden can be prosecuted for sharing confidential information.
Another word for spying. In America the maximum punishment for this is death, but Snowden would be more likely to face a prison term. Bradley Manning, a soldier currently on trial for leaking confidential information via Wikileaks, has been kept in extremely harsh conditions, including solitary confinement for 23 hours each day.
A small nation in Central America ruled by Rafael Correa, one of several Latin American leaders who represent a populist brand of anti-American socialism. Unlike Cuba, Ecuador is a functioning democracy, although Correa has been strongly criticised for censoring the media and refusing to tolerate political dissent.

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