There was a time, not so long ago, when the U.S. would threaten to revoke preferential trade benefits against a small developing country and that country would quickly stop what it was doing to irritate the U.S. government and fall into line, so as to preserve those benefits. That is clearly not the case with Ecuador as it considers whether to offer Edward Snowden political asylum. Its president, Rafael Correa, has turned the tables on the U.S. government and said Ecuador no longer wants the $23 million in trade preferences it currently enjoys, and will instead start a fund for the same amount to promote human rights education for U.S. citizens.
The only apparently meaningful leverage the U.S. government had to entice Ecuador not to grant Mr. Snowden asylum has been deftly removed, and the U.S. is now on the defensive, as it has been vis-à-vis both China and Russia on the subjects of the extradition of Mr. Snowden and cyber-espionage. The difference is, while China and Russia are engaging in a diplomatic dance with the U.S., Ecuador isn't dancing. Instead, it has seized the initiative, upped the ante, and provided itself with options it did not have prior to turning the tables on the U.S. What does this say about how diplomacy is waged today?
China and Russia have preferred dance partners other than the U.S. for quite a while now, and when they do dance, it tends to resemble a mosh pit more than a ballroom waltz. China's focus has been on establishing economic, political and military predominance in Asia, while the pursuit of natural resource acquisition has come to define its foreign policy throughout the world. As for Russia, Mr. Putin is primarily focused on reestablishing Russia's influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. Neither country has placed a priority on improving their relationship with the U.S., and given the state of affairs between each country and the U.S., there is little reason to believe that will change any time in the future.
The Snowden affair says a lot about how the world works today. A young man was able to obtain top secret clearance without so much as a high school education, simply walk away from a highly sensitive job with a memory stick full of secrets -- in spite of multiple layers of security - and expose some of the most prized secrets of the world's mightiest power by saying he was sick, flying to Hong Kong, and inviting one of the world's best respected newspapers to interview him. He then basically holds the U.S. government hostage for weeks on end while walking on to yet another flight - apparently undetected - to Moscow. The U.S. government first demands his extradition, then pleads for it, then says it isn't willing damage relations with China or Russia over a bad boy for which it has only itself to blame.
In short, Mr. Snowden has proven that, even today, an individual can hold a government hostage, and in spite of all the cyber-snooping that goes on, governments still have a hard time keeping track of their citizens. Ecuador has demonstrated that David can still slay Goliath. China has shown that simply playing dumb is enough to extricate itself from a sticky situation. And Russia has shown that whether the subject is Iran, Syria, or the departure lounge at a Moscow airport, it continues to have the ability to shape the course of events.
It wouldn't be at all surprising if more developing countries choose the Ecuador model for responding to threats from larger, more developed countries in the future. Given that the world is very much a global marketplace, that diplomacy is being pursued on a multipolar basis, and that information is a global commodity, no single country calls the shots. Mr. Correa has reminded us of that. The days of diplomatic ballroom dancing are quickly disappearing in favor of a mosh pit.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk".