Editor's note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist of the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and the Observer and served as White House corespondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C.
(CNN) -- The increasingly slapstick global steeplechase in pursuit of Edward Snowden, the former American contractor who leaked top-secret details of surveillance programs, looks like a cross between "The Hunt for Red October" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
Nobody, except perhaps Snowden himself, is coming out of this well.
While the CIA's Public Enemy Number One plays Captain Marko Ramius, keeping stumm beneath the (radio) waves in the Moscow transit zone, Very Important People are making themselves ridiculous in vintage Tom Wolfe style.
High on the list is John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State. Huffing and puffing, Kerry warned China and Russia of "consequences" if, as seems probable, they have conspired to deliberately thwart U.S. justice by twisting the long arm of the law.
Like too many American politicians, Kerry seems to believe "the law" is what the White House counsel and U.S. Justice Department deem it to be on any given day, and that this made-in-America "law" applies inexorably to every country and every corner of the world.
Wrong, John. It's like invading somebody else's country without a U.N. Security Council resolution, or entering a home without a warrant. Not advisable, unless you relish hand-to-hand combat and endless sarcasm.
Quite what Kerry's "consequences" may be is not specified -- but the idea sounds arrogant to foreign ears.
Perhaps the U.S. will retaliate by ordering the secret hacking of Chinese government data banks? Wait a minute. Hasn't that been done already?
To Asian eyes, Snowden is a new, more useful kind of Quiet American. Having picked his brains or pockets or both, Hong Kong happily let him go.
Russia says it feels "threatened" by U.S. criticism. This is as close as Sergei Lavrov, Moscow's dour foreign minister, has ever got to making a joke. If Putin and pals can stiff Obama on Syria and Iran, they can certainly "lift" a tale-teller and endure a cyber-tiff or two. These are tears of laughter, not pain.
Crowing Chinese comments about how the heroic Snowden has "torn off Washington's sanctimonious mask" give a clue to what is going on here.
So, too, does the uppity behavior of tiny Ecuador and Iceland. If these international minnows dare challenge the pomp and majesty of Imperial America, how stands the Empire now, Caesar?
Fraying at the edges, is the answer.
Admit it. For Obama et al, it's a "pants-down" day.
L'affaire Snowden has provided a glorious field day for all those "surrender monkey Commie pinko crypto-Marxist long-haired G8-loathing eco-friendly global-warming anti-free market anti-capitalist anti-McDonald's (anti-stereotype)" anti-Americans who just love to hate the "Land of the Free."
It's surprising how many of them there are these days.
Perhaps it has something to do with Guantanamo. For sure, the Beijing Politburo has no problem with detaining people indefinitely without charge. After all, they've been doing it for years. But it comes hard from a global superpower that is constantly lecturing China and everybody else about the inviolability of human rights.
Perhaps it's a Bradley Manning thing. There's a lot of sympathy out there for the pint-sized soldier who dared to share the State Department's incredibly tedious cables, then got treated worse than a mass murderer.
Every country has its own experience of U.S. bullying. In Britain, the case of Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, accused by the U.S. of the "biggest military computer hack of all time", became a cause celebre.
In the end even Britain's sycophantic Cameron government was obliged, by force of public opinion, to throw out the U.S. extradition demand.
Perhaps it's the way the U.S. ignores its friends' environmental and resource concerns. Perhaps people in the global village are growing less tolerant of a domineering, one-size-fits-all philistine culture.
Iran has a pithy catchphrase for it. It calls America the "Global Arrogance."
Or perhaps it's a "white man's burden" thing. That's the phrase the British used to morally justify their empire-building. They were doing good, or so they told themselves, annexing all those countries and subjugating their peoples.
Geopolitically speaking, Washington took over where London left off, post 1945. Except the US equivalent phrase is "right man's burden". That is to say, we (that's the imperial Washington 'we') are (always) right, and you (lesser mortals, sadly benighted) are (always) wrong.
The world watched this attitude play out in Afghanistan and Iraq (intervention to make America's streets safe) and now in Syria (non-intervention to make America's streets safe). Pity all those displaced and terrorised Middle Easterners, but hey, we fixed Osama didn't we?
Strange that sense of triumph over the killing of the 9/11 mastermind was not universally shared.
Extra-judicial assassination, drones, killer robots, extraordinary rendition, black ops, wet ops, psy-ops, silly ops... The world is a bit tired of all this American posturing, grandstanding, and self-serving banditry.
So now it's cyber-ops, but wholly unofficial, courtesy Mr E. Snowden. It would hard to accept it is real, if you didn't suspect it was virtual. Rather than decry it, many applaud it.
The White House is furious at the non-cooperation it has received. But has it occurred to them that maybe not just the Russians and the Chinese, but those soft, liberal Europeans and all the other neutrals also don't like the idea of being spied on by an out-of-control transnational agency beyond the reach of the law, any law, anywhere?
Obama and Kerry can talk about security until they lose signal. Right now, the rest of the world is talking sovereignty, privacy and individual rights. And enjoying the moment when the big guy takes a fall.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Tisdall.