Yet the self-confessed National Security Agency leaker has managed to orchestrate a very different political phenomenon: the biggest bout of anti-Americanism since the Iraq war.
When he first revealed his identity a month ago while in Hong Kong, Mr Snowden used selective disclosures about US global surveillance to rally public opinion in China and Russia. Since then, he has managed to create uproar in Europe with information about the bugging of EU offices and over the past week he has created a new international stir in Latin America.
According to reports this week in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo based on documents provided by the 30-year-old former NSA contractor, the US has been using telecoms infrastructure in Brazil to absorb huge volumes of communications and to spy on governments in the region.
With the US economy looking robust for the first time since the financial crisis, the US is again being seen as an over-weaning superpower that brushes aside smaller nations.
“It sends chills up my spine when we learn they are spying on all of us through their intelligence services in Brazil,” said Cristina Fernández, Argentina’s president.
Making his first public appearance on Friday since he arrived in Moscow, Mr Snowden told human rights activists and politicians that he was applying for temporary asylum in Russia, which would give him the legal basis to travel to one of the three left-leaning Latin American countries that have offered asylum.
“I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression,” he said, according to a statement later released by WikiLeaks, which suggested that he ultimately wants to travel to Venezuela.
The Snowden saga has prompted starkly different responses in the US and in the rest of the world. In the US, the revelations have set off a debate about surveillance in the media, but the broader political impact has been muted by Mr Snowden’s flirtations with governments that are viewed as unfriendly to the US, leading some previously sympathetic members of Congress to denounce him.
At the same time, rightwing critics have used the failure to secure his extradition as evidence of the Obama administration’s weak foreign policy. As Eliot Cohen, a former George W Bush administration adviser, said of the president: “Nobody’s afraid of this guy.”
Outside the US, however, the revelations have revived a narrative about the dangers of a world dominated by an untrustworthy superpower that had been dormant as debate raged instead about American decline. Already criticised for its extensive use of drones, the international image of the administration has taken another heavy hit by the documents about extensive US surveillance.
Many Latin American governments were angered when the plane carrying Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, was diverted to Vienna airport on suspicion that Mr Snowden was on board – a tip that Spanish officials said this week came from the US.
The disclosures about US surveillance in Brazil have prompted a new round of indignation in a region with a strong anti-US sentiment. “Any attack on the sovereignty of one country must be answered with great firmness, because if we lower our heads, they will walk all over us,” said Gilberto Carvalho, a senior aide to Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president.
For some governments, Snowden has provided an opportunity to shift public debate from domestic problems. French president François Hollande, whose popularity has slumped, denounced the US snooping as “unacceptable”, while the Brazil revelations came as the government was reeling from the biggest popular protests in two decades.
“It has given Brazil’s government a great opportunity to change the conversation,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank. He said part of the government’s support base has “a traditional anti-Americanism which is always near the surface”.
However, by asking the United Nations to look into the alleged eavesdropping, he said Brazil was “trying to deflect the issue in a way that does not damage relations with the US”.
US officials believe the sentiments aroused by Mr Snowden will dissipate. “Great powers all engage in espionage. That includes China, Russia and the US,” says Jim Lewis, a former intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s not war, it’s not an attack, it’s not use of force, it’s not even coercion.” – FT