07/17/2013 04:43 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

US Surveillance Unsettles Civilians More Than States

Allegations of American decline persist despite the United States' command of the world's largest economy and strongest military. It is in global esteem that the US is lagging, and where the international implications of US mass surveillance could do long-lasting harm.

Revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs have drawn enormous attention and opprobrium. US officials are fielding questions while Congress members draft legislation and civil rights groups file lawsuits. But these apparatuses have largely failed to address how US surveillance efforts affect non-Americans.

In a wired world where the US tells other countries that "full respect for human rights must be maintained" online, the privacy of US citizens and non-Americans alike must be part of the conversation. Hawks too should be concerned, for the soft power hits that come with serious international anger will only hamper US security and foreign policy. That is why the frustrations of everyday citizens around the world - not their governments - are more problematic for the US.

Governments React...Rather Weakly

French President Hollande insisted that NSA surveillance programs "stop immediately" and demanded a US explanation, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated her intention to question Obama on the "possible impairment of German citizens." Media speculates that European ire may inspire the European Parliament (EP) to veto the passage of the wide-ranging Trans-Atlantic Trade Deal. The Parliament did, after all, term the surveillance programs a "serious violation" and call for an investigation whose findings could threaten transatlantic cooperation.

These fears are overblown. Any recommendations to come from the EP will require passage not only by Parliamentarians, but also EU member states, before becoming law, in a labyrinthine process that is unlikely to occur. Also far-fetched is the notion that EU states will make a principled stand against the trade deal to their own financial detriment, or that they would suspend collaboration on security measures like the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme.

Brazil, whose President called US surveillance of the Brazilian military an affront to Brazilian sovereignty and human rights, may pose the most serious state challenge to US surveillance.

Yet, considering that the NSA's PRISM program had 117,675 active foreign surveillance targets by April 2013, these reactions are rather tame.

State indignation (especially in Europe) may be muted, as some allege, because most web-savvy countries, including France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, conduct their own sweeping surveillance programs. These black pots are loathe to disparage the US kettle, no matter how dark. The German government's outcry, the loudest in Europe, has been derided as largely "a flurry of activity apparently designed to reassure German electors." Le Monde ascribes France's "weak signs of protest" to "two excellent reasons: Paris already knew. And it does the same thing."

The song and dance of recrimination will continue mainly because governments want to appease "public pressure to respond assertively." US officials understand that they need not worry about real intergovernmental hostilities, at least for now.

The Civilian Storm

Foreign governments know that their constituents, on the other hand, are furious. Individuals around the world accuse the US government and US-based businesses like Google and Apple of far-reaching surveillance that inexcusably subsumes non-US citizens under US law. These people, and the groups through which they organize, point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to demand freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

In comparison to heads of state, however, they lack the power levers necessary to demand US attention and a sincere response. Swiss civil rights groups have filed a criminal complaint saying that US surveillance violates local law, but such arguments will fall deaf in Washington, and the Swiss government has not taken up their mantle. Another European-based human rights group delivered a letter demanding data protections to the US Embassy, but a sympathetic US response will be rhetorical at best.

96 international activists and organizations wrote an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding that it ask states to "report on practices and laws in place on surveillance and what corrective steps will they will take to meet human rights standards." A similar letter addressed to the US Congress then asked the US "to take immediate action to dismantle existing, and prevent the creation of future, global Internet and telecommunications based surveillance systems." The expression of "serious alarm" by the 372 individuals and non-profits from 53 countries that signed the latter letter likely represents millions or billions more around the world who are outraged even if their governments will not make strong public stands against the US.

Speak Now, or Forever Hold Your Peace

Sorting out the extent of NSA surveillance efforts and how those programs affect everyday users will take time. As lawmakers and public officials debate programs like PRISM, it is all of us, American and otherwise, who should be concerned about their implications for privacy and freedom of expression. The preservation of human rights online cannot be contained by national borders.

While governments continue to wink at one another over stoic speeches, individuals around the world are authentically angry. If allowed to foment unabated, public pressure could yet back governments into punishing the US-- whether through trade breaks, diplomatic downgrade, or disengagement from US technology firms-- despite their current reticence to do so. Such moves will ensure that it is not just the right to privacy, but also American standing, that suffers. If for that reason alone, American officials should engage the international community, and not just their governmental counterparts, sooner rather than later.