Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Airline security, international diplomacy, and you

By Peter Henne

It's not often that European debates over airline security get much attention, but two articles on this topic have come out in the past two days. One, in The Washington Post, discusses the European Parliament's authority under the Lisbon treaty to handle issues such as airline passenger information-sharing deals. With this power, European officials are pushing back on US efforts to track possible terrorist threats through such information. The other, from the BBC, discusses calls by the British airline industry to simplify security checks in the country, especially for flights involving the United States; they want to get rid of the extra security measures placed on flights going to America.

These stories touch on several issues. The first is the perennial debate over the appropriate level of counter-terrorism preparedness. US officials believe that extra security checks for people traveling to the United States and sharing passenger information are the best way to prevent terrorist attacks. Many others disagree, and argue that these represent half-thought out reactions that serve mainly to inconvenience passengers and increase costs to the airlines. There are also concerns about the level of privacy passengers are allowed.

The second has to do with broader relations between Europe and the United States. Not all of the justifications given for Europe's potential blocking of information-sharing measures had to do with privacy concerns. Some argued that US security demands were forcing Europe to tacitly adopt US tactics to counter terrorist threats, which some find morally-questionable. There was also a concern about the United States imposing power over Europe through domestic airline standards, which Europe must follow. So the controversy does not only involve ethical concerns about counter-terror strategies, it is also an issue of Europe asserting itself in the face of US hegemony.

Finally, there are the complications over authority within Europe itself. The United States has made information-sharing agreements with individual European countries, agreements whose validity may now be in question. European Parliament members believe a panoply of separate agreements would greatly complicate Europe-wide information-sharing standards. It is likely European officials also worry about their authority being undermined if state-level agreements stand. Debates over counter-terrorism tactics are thus caught up in broader struggles between parties in Europe desiring a stronger European Union, and parties preferring states maintain control of certain issue-areas.

So what is the point of all this, besides semi-academic musing? It shows the complicated nature of any element of international relations. If this was just a question of divergent views on privacy standards, we could negotiate an agreement or the United States could proceed as it wishes and trust that its market power will force Europeans to go along. But because this also involves European attempts at self-assertion, the harder the United States pushes the more the Europeans will push back. Add in the complexities of intra-European power struggles, and the situation becomes even more unpredictable.

Something like airline security may seem trivial or boring, but it makes up a significant element of the US counter-terrorism strategy. And this strategy will be undermined without careful, intelligent diplomacy on this and numerous other issues. The Obama Administration seems well suited to such diplomacy, but any international accords must also meet the approval of Congress, and Congressional intransigence or ignorance has sunk important international agreements before.

Just something to think about as we go to the polls next week.

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