Lessons in Trust from the United States

331555_Obama Merkel

When trust is betrayed, it’s difficult to repair.

That’s the problem facing the United States and those nation states in Europe (United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Spain) and Latin and South America (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela) whose citizens, businesses and politicians it has surveilled or monitored.

What can this scandal teach us about emotions?

1. It’s difficult to make an abstraction mad, but when you offend individuals they get angry and anger can be contagious.

It took news that the personal phones of Dilma Rousseff (President of Brazil) and Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany) were monitored to galvanize simmering opposition to the United States. 

Only when Merkel discovered that her own calls had been monitored (for up to a year, with the knowledge of President Obama) did she voice her opposition to the mass surveillance of Germans. A month before, when news of this first broke, her response was muted.

2. When we trust we make ourselves vulnerable to the agent who is trusted. We give them power over us. We give them the means of harming us. To protect ourselves, when we trust we imposed a moral obligation upon the trusted party not to betray that trust. Trusting, then, forms a bond. If and when that bond is broken and trust is betrayed we can claim the right to impose sanctions on the offending party. This is the situation now.

3. These revelations make clear that this trust was based on an asymmetry of power. Those countries placed under surveillance regarded themselves as ‘friends and allies’ of the United States. They trusted the US not to do what it has done. The United States did not trust these States not to monitor the ‘homeland’ because they knew they were incapable of it.

4. Because they trusted, they did not ‘expect’ this kind of behaviour. It is something one does to adversaries, enemies. Surveillance of this kind is to obtain an advantage (personal, commercial, political) over the surveilled. Because they did not expect it, they did not defend themselves against it. They supported the United States and acted openly.

5. These nation states trusted a party which is untrustworthy. They were deceived. They made themselves vulnerable and were taken advantage of. The United States used this information to gain commercial and political advantage.

6. Betrayal of trust is a violation of the emotive-moralistic disposition inherent in relations of trust that hold it together. Betrayal is trauma. It forces us to rethink our moral expectations we once regarded as inviolable. If relations between the United States and these countries are to be restored they will have to be under specific conditions and safe-guards.

7. Why did these countries need to trust the United States? Why did they volunteer to place themselves in a position of vulnerability? It was a response to America’s emotional trauma over 9/11 and the subsequent need to avenge and assuage it via the ‘war-on-terror’. This was the core of their emotive-moral disposition towards the United States. They may want to rethink this.

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