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Knowlton: Disregarding international law
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The world is changing rapidly and dangerously. Fallout from the Edward Snowden affair shows portions of that change that should make Americans sit up and take notice.

Global stability depends on checks and balances on power in the relationships among countries as well as a fragile set of norms, often called international law, established through treaties. Both have been thrown out of whack, at a time when the world's institutions are stressed.

The Snowden effect — his leaks and subsequent reporting — opened eyes everywhere on the ordinary surveillance of communications throughout the world carried out by the United States and allies with the aid of U.S.-based global telecommunication corporations. It also is leading to diplomatic fallout, and increasing tension in international relationships.

In a telling example, on July 3 the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was denied permission to fly over several European countries and, as a result, was forced to land in Vienna, Austria, where it was delayed for 18 hours and searched. The European countries suspected Snowden was on board and wanted to catch him.

In the process, international law and treaties were violated. This could be seen as an act of war. It suggests the desire to capture Snowden took precedence over the legal structure of national sovereignty and inviolability of heads of state.

As a result, Bolivia is calling for the structure of international relations to be reexamined and renegotiated, especially if a handful of nations (probably at the insistence of the United States) could freely violate the norms of international respect and sovereignty.

Generally, such a call from a small country would not be heeded. However, the circumstances today are different.

Morales' call comes when, at one level, the power of the United States has never been greater (as the NSA scandal illustrates). On another level, the set of organizations that guaranteed stability are shifting in ways that no longer guarantee the maintenance of the standard order.

The detention of a president of a sovereign country has been condemned by almost all South American countries, except for the two or three in the pocket of the United States. Even among them, serious concerns have been expressed. These have been taken to The Union of South American Nations.

Interestingly, UNASUR already has taken the unusual step of openly breaking with the United States. In 2008, it supported Morales against a coup attempt — widely seen as having U.S. support — aimed at checking the spread of leftist governments in the region. The Monroe Doctrine that had been at the base of hemispheric stability became tattered as a result.

Furthermore, on July 9, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States condemned the detention of Morales as an illegal action against the inviolability of a head of state. The OAS has generally been seen as one of the keys of building hemispheric stability and U.S. power in the Americas.

Instead of being ignored, Bolivia's call for a reconsideration of international treaties, and hence the order keeping the world stable, is more likely to be heeded. As a result, U.S. power may be more and more simply military and economic, instead of being grounded in a bevy of treaties and organizations that made this country less overwhelming and violent.

The Snowden affair did not create this turn of events, but it is exacerbating and enhancing it. We move into a much more dangerous world as a result.

David Knowlton is a professor of anthropology at Utah Valley University. He lives in Salt Lake City.

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