‘Homeland’ understands international politics in ways scholars simply don’t get

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland. (Photo by: Showtime – Handout)

Showtime’s hit show Homeland understands a key political dynamic that pundits and international relations scholars often fail to get. Global politics is less and less about conflicts between states and more and more about actors who work across state boundaries to build alliances and fight battles, often using these alliances to circumvent rules that would prevent them from doing things that they really want to do.

The current season of Homeland (SPOILER ALERT) starts with the revelation that German intelligence agencies are in cahoots with the CIA. The CIA uses a secret program to tap into German social media and other Internet data, so as to target Islamic extremism. It then shares the information it gathers with the BND (the German equivalent of the CIA). Importantly, German privacy laws prevent the BND from collecting the data themselves. Thus, the CIA/BND relationship offers a transnational workaround that allows German intelligence officers to make an end run around Germany’s constitution.

This plot is revealed by an awkward alliance between a libertarian German hacker, who moonlights in an Internet porn shop, and a journalist in self-imposed exile from the United States, who is depicted (at least in the first two episodes) as a civil liberties zealot. When the program is revealed, shock waves reverberate through the transatlantic partners. The problem for the German chancellor is not that the program existed but that it was made public.

Melodramatics (and controversial depictions of Islam) aside, Homeland’s version of transatlantic counter-terrorism politics gets a lot of things right. There are journalists and civil liberties activists who have left the United States for Berlin, which has become a dissidence hub like London in the 19th-century era of Karl Marx. Wikileaks data makes it clear that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was far more tolerant of U.S. incursions on privacy in private than she was in public, and her right hand man, Wolfgang Schäuble, was privately enthusiastic about U.S. proposals to limit privacy in favor of homeland security.

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Homeland’s account of the relationship between Europe and the U.S. also does better than the standard arguments of pundits such as Robert Kagan. In his well-known and influential book, Of Paradise and Power, Kagan caricatures the United States as coming from Mars and Europe as coming from Venus. In other words, the U.S. relies on unilateral, coercive tools to fight the global war on terror, while the EU cares more about rules and legal structures. This suggests that EU-US arguments over spying and privacy are straightforward battles between big states and jurisdictions, over whose rules win.

While there’s something to this way of thinking, it also misses out on a lot. Our recent research on the New Interdependence provides an alternative account that is closer to Homeland than Kagan. Instead of looking at international politics as interactions between states, it looks at how collective actors beneath the level of the state – companies, bureaucracies and interest groups – play a key role in shaping politics. In a globalized world, these collective actors find it much easier to make alliances across borders. This has parallels with Homeland, in which securocrats work together to expand the tools available to fight terrorism, sometimes breaking national laws. At the same time, civil liberties advocates are joining forces transnationally to leverage differences among political systems to fight for fundamental rights, different political systems to maintain and promote fundamental rights. It suggests that the big battle isn’t between the U.S. and the European Union, but between two loose alliances, one of security actors across the Atlantic, and the other of privacy activists who have allied across jurisdictions to fight them. Each of these alliances is using the global stage to fight for their agenda.

Homeland further gets it right in highlighting the big issue that these alliances are fighting over – data sharing. If you look at two recent public agreements between the U.S. and Europe regarding airline passenger data and financial transaction records, you will see that both require Europe to share data with U.S. counterparts. Both however contain a reciprocity clause, which stipulates that Europeans may make requests of U.S. agencies regarding transferred data. Yes that is right – European agencies may ask U.S. agencies for data that they have themselves transferred to the U.S. Germany is now embroiled in a big privacy scandal about how the BND has helped the NSA to target German and European targets. It all sounds like an end run around European privacy laws, and European activists – and judges – are thinking about how to respond . . . The season has just begun!

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Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy. For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by a group of political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.