Snowden and Sovereignty

The controversies surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden have global implications. (Image source:


Disturbing news regarding the U.S.’s pursuit of whistleblower Edward Snowden made headlines this past week.  Bolivian President Evo Morales’ airplane, traveling from Russia back to Bolivia, was rerouted to Austria last Tuesday due to suspicions that Snowden might be aboard.  France, Italy, Spain and Portugal refused to allow Morales’ plane to enter their airspace for the same reason.  Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor and CIA employee who leaked NSA documents, is looking to avoid extradition to the U.S.; Bolivia was seen as a leading candidate to grant his asylum request.

In response to the aircraft’s grounding, Morales, the Bolivian people and heads of state across Latin America expressed anger toward European countries and the U.S., which is widely believed to be responsible for the debacle.  The Bolivian president even threatened to close the U.S. embassy in La Paz, and South American leaders demanded apologies from the involved European countries. 

The turn of events actually led to good news for Snowden though, as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro decided to offer him asylum.  “As head of state of the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela, I have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the young Snowden…to protect this young man from the persecution launched by the most powerful empire in the world,” Maduro proclaimed.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega followed Venezuela’s lead shortly thereafter, and Morales also said Bolivia would accept Snowden’s asylum request.  The U.S. has already sent a letter to Venezuela, formally requesting Snowden’s extradition should he land on Venezuelan soil, which Maduro quickly rejected

The cat and mouse affair between the Obama administration and Snowden has topped news headlines in the U.S. the last few weeks.  Stephen Colbert even jokingly dubbed the pursuit, “Where in the World is Edward Snowdiego.”  Although most who follow the news are well aware of this ordeal, Snowden’s whereabouts and debates over whether he is a hero or villain have unfortunately overshadowed the real major news story here. 

The United States, with the help of European countries, basically kidnapped the leader of a sovereign country.  The U.S. has again flexed its imperial muscles and extended the wrath of white privilege, rolling over sovereign Third World states in the effort to catch Snowden.  European countries have aided and abetted these heinous violations of international law. 

Not that this is a surprise given the U.S. and Europe’s violent incursions into Libya, Iraq, Mali and Afghanistan in recent years (just to name a few countries), but the blasé American media reaction essentially implies that Western abuses of Third World sovereignties is unnewsworthy.  The lengths to which the U.S. has gone in chasing Snowden are downright frightening, especially since President Barack Obama recently said that they would not be “scrambling jets” to catch him.  Apparently this did not include Bolivia’s jets.

The fact that Obama made this statement while on a diplomatic trip to Senegal – another sovereign Third World nation – makes his complete lie even further ironic. The U.S. government prioritized their interests over the security of Third World leaders, once again.  Morales’ de facto kidnapping exemplifies how the U.S. so often undermines a Third World country’s sovereignty merely on a whim. 

The U.S. government previously pressured Ecuador after the South American nation indicated it would consider granting Snowden asylum.  Ecuador even mockingly offered to give the U.S. financial aid for human rights training after the U.S. threatened to cut trade benefits.  Nevertheless, despite Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s adamancy that they would determine Snowden’s fate “with absolute sovereignty,” he later changed his stance after a phone call from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.  The phone call ultimately succeeded in persuading Correa to deny Snowden asylum.  On the other hand, when the U.S. contacted China and Russia in attempts to extradite Snowden, both countries essentially ignored the requests.

These situations are quintessential demonstrations of imperial might.  By infringing their pursuits upon less powerful non-white nations, the U.S. government not only privileges its interests, but it also claims superiority over the rest of the world and ultimately reinforces global white supremacy.

The sheer notion that any country would sneak Snowden aboard a presidential aircraft speaks to an excessive egocentricity on the U.S. government’s part.  To be sure, U.S. aggression in world affairs is at an all time high, resulting in amplified global resentment toward American imperialism.   But despite this truth, it remains entirely fantastical to assume the rest of the world is so cognizant of the U.S., that countries would put their leaders’ lives at stake in order to smuggle an American whistleblower.  This extreme narcissism is rooted in American exceptionalism and white privilege, which falsely places America and, by extension, Europe at the center of the world map.  In other words, the logic concludes that the existence of the whole world is entirely based on peoples’ admiration or hate for the U.S. and Europe. 

Europe’s complicity in the U.S.’s pursuit of Snowden further confirms the presence of white privilege.  Just a day before the Morales kidnapping, France and Germany conveyed disappointment with the U.S. because the Snowden leaks revealed – among other things – that France, Germany, Italy and other European countries were targets of American espionage.  Notwithstanding these revelations, France and Italy were still compelled to reject Morales’ plane from entering their airspace due to the possibility that Snowden, the man who exposed this information in the first place, was aboard. 

Surveillance of any country’s activities is a clear violation of sovereignty.  France and Italy thus could have stood up against American infringements by showing solidarity not only with Snowden but also with Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and other targets of U.S. intimidation.  Regardless of whether or not Snowden was even on the plane, France and Italy had a chance to resist American requests and allow Morales’ aircraft to cross through their airspace.  But they did not.  Even with knowledge that the U.S. spied on them, they still complied with American interests.

France and Italy effectively showed that their loyalties remain with the West and more generally, the project of white supremacy.  Their stance is that Western countries pursuing their interests at the expense of Third World sovereignties is justified, but such actions taken against Western nations is reprehensible.  European countries and the U.S. have a double standard when it comes to sovereignty.  This sort of chauvinistic “gentlemen’s agreement” that privileges Western interests is a disgraceful display of white supremacy, which inevitably victimizes the Third World.

The Obama administration has chosen to criminalize Snowden rather than address the U.S.’s surveillance practices. (Image source:

Sovereignty as a concept has European origins; throughout much of history, Western law determined who had “sovereign” status.  No doubt, this means that the term was historically employed to justify the exclusion and exploitation of subjugated peoples, especially people of color.  Contemporary violations of Third World sovereignties are part of a long historical pattern – the Snowden example is no exception.  Thus, the model of sovereignty in international law is fundamentally rooted in white supremacy and in subsidizing Western imperial projects.  However, even current international law recognizes the U.S. and European countries’ actions as violations of sovereignty.

In an article for The Guardian, John Pilger poses an appropriate hypothetical situation that challenges how we understand the West’s scandalous actions against Third World countries. 

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on “suspicion” that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the “international community,” as the governments of the West call themselves.  To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism.  Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

Given the West’s tendency to willfully intervene in the Third World, Pilger’s predictions would likely come to fruition in such a hypothetical scenario.  Nonetheless, no Third World country would ever do this in reality, on account of the harsh foreseeable consequences.  The gangsterism that Pilger describes, however, is unquestionably real.  The entire Snowden ordeal has uncovered more episodes of Western bullying on less powerful Third World nations. 

It is admirable that Latin American leaders have made provisions to grant Snowden’s asylum, especially in the midst of these intimidation tactics.  Moreover, news that Latin American heads of state met with each other in the wake of Morales’ kidnapping demonstrates the solidarity necessary to challenge Western hegemony.  We must remember however, it really is the resolve of people across the globe and their support for justice that gained Snowden’s asylum. 

The fate of the nation that Snowden chooses remains to be seen, as the U.S. government will undoubtedly continue its pursuit.  Nevertheless, American imperialism will not always be successful in undercutting Third World sovereignties.  Each incident of imperial bullying only further empowers and mobilizes Third World opposition to global white supremacy.


Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Follow us on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at

One Response to “Snowden and Sovereignty”
  1. jtroane says:

    This is spot on!

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