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The Limits of National Hypocrisy

Andrew Sullivan quotes an article from Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore in Foreign Affairs magazine (the article is subscription only, so I can’t read the context and there’s no point in linking to it) making the argument that national hypocrisy is necessary, at least within some limits:

Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by US power and legitimated by liberal ideas. … This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, US officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the US-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

Sullivan seems to agree pretty strongly with this:

Agreed. And this is one of liberalism’s great weak spots. It cannot abide hypocrisy while never fully understanding how, in a fallen world, it is a key lubricant for almost all human society. As someone once wrote, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. It reflects the simple fact that we cannot live up to the ideals we often have. So they keep some things on the down-low. This is true of all of us, including governments. Most marriages, for example, could not survive total transparency. The manifold husbands staying up late to jack off on the computer downstairs do not want to tell their wives, because it would hurt the marriage they actually want to keep. But they cannot help their sex drive, the power of novelty in sexual attraction, or the astonishingly easy access to porn morning, noon and night. So discretion in these cases – which can be a form of hypocrisy – is the norm.

In other words, hypocrisy – of the mildest kind – makes marriage possible. It makes any relationship – business or otherwise – possible. It makes statecraft particularly possible in ways Glenn Greenwald, I’m afraid, has not fully accepted. I’m not defending unnecessary secrecy or lack of democratic accountability and a certain degree of transparency. I’m defending a more pragmatic approach to how we actually live our lives in society and how some level of hypocrisy makes that possible. Hypocrisy is also a two-way street. Are we supposed to believe that the aggrieved Angela Merkel does not have her own espionage capacities, does not spy on other countries, does not scoop up intelligence? Of course not. Yet we respect her complaints as a necessary form of hypocrisy.

Because fully exposing that hypocrisy, however noble and exhilarating, takes a toll on how the world is governed, and how countries are defended.

This is pretty disappointing coming from the guy who has relentlessly, and rightly, hammered the government over torture and demanded the prosecution of Bush officials who approved it. And I’m not sure what the marriage analogy is supposed to be analogous too, exactly. Should the government be allowed to cover up its illegal spying from the public, for example, because the government just can’t help it? Or argue that the government’s “discretion” protects its citizens from an uncomfortable truth? Sorry, I cannot buy that at all.

Would it really be so difficult to live up to our stated ideals? Must our actions conflict with our often-declared principles so consistently? I don’t see an argument here from Farrell, Finnemore or Sullivan, only an unsubstantiated declaration that hypocrisy is necessary.

Comments

  1. Anthony K says

    This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the US-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

    I sometimes forget how strongly manifest destiny colours American thought and creates a disconnect between how Americans think the rest of the world views America, and how the rest of the world actually views America.

  2. cswella says

    They’re looking at this wrong. The expectation we have of our government shouldn’t be measured/categorized under hypocrisy, it should be how important each instance is.

    We cannot live up to our ideals, this is true. But while I support issue x, I won’t say I’m the perfect ideal of that position. I support equality, but I still catch myself making judgments based on gender/race/etc. I’m not living up to the ideals I support, but I won’t lie and say I’m the ideal for everyone else.

    Hypocrisy stops conversation, because people don’t like to admit their faults.

  3. Artor says

    International politics aside, I think I missed something in the argument. Why exactly is a married guy watching porn supposed to be hypocrisy? I don’t see it.

  4. says

    Ace of Sevens “On the ‘everybody does it’ excuse: other countries seem to be better at it as our allies don’t keep getting caught spying on us.”
    “That’s because we mostly use the old ways, like seduction.” ~ The Rest of the World

  5. mudpuddles says

    Are we supposed to believe that the aggrieved Angela Merkel does not have her own espionage capacities, does not spy on other countries, does not scoop up intelligence? Of course not. Yet we respect her complaints as a necessary form of hypocrisy.

    The author suggests that Angela Merkel is hypocritical if she has spying capacities, which is a complete red herring. So what if she has spying capacities? The point is that she is most probably not using them to spy on the private conversations of allied heads of state, nor is she insisting that Germany has the right to hoover up en masse the private communications data of any and all citizens in any allied country. In fact, we can be fairly certain, based on recent history, regional (i.e. European Union) treaties and legislation, and from her personal experience growing up in the GDR, that Angela Merkel is not sanctioning wire tapping of Barack Obama’s phone, or those of members of his cabinet, or other members of allied governments. Neither is Germany engaged in mass gathering of private data from the citizens of foreign allies, or for that matter of its own citizens, a la the NSA. We can be fairly certain that Germany does indeed have some pretty advanced intelligence gathering programmes related to counter terrorism and scrutiny of non-allied states. It probably also extends to occasional but limited spying within allied states. But to suggest that Merkel is a hypocrite for being pissed off at learning that the USA has been wiretapping her mobile is utter bollocks.

    But they cannot help their sex drive, the power of novelty in sexual attraction, or the astonishingly easy access to porn morning, noon and night.

    Ah, the standard, bullshit excuse that “men just can’t help acting on impulse” so we should give them a pass and never mind any ensuing hypocrisy. Is Sullivan suggesting that the USA needs to wiretap friendly heads of state because it wants to give in to its primal desires while also keeping relationships strong?? Or something? Er…. how does that work, exactly? How about an analogy that isn’t complete horseshite?? Perhaps something like “Married men, just like big governments, can learn some fucking self control when relationships with partners are concerned”?

  6. Johnny Vector says

    His analogy would hold up better if Merkel’s complaint were that the NSA was using its elite code-cracking abilities to download and watch German dungeon porn without paying for it. Admittedly, my German is rusty, but from what I can gather that’s not actually the thrust of her objection.

  7. haitied says

    I have to disagree mud puddles. If I feel like touching myself that’s my business. My wife doesn’t care cause that’s a completely absurd thing to be upset about. Touching oneself does not compare in any way to spring on others. It was a terrible analogy, irreparably so.

  8. says

    This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the US-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

    So would it surprised the authors (and Andrew Sullivan) to learn that the number of Americans who find the notion of this US-led order they discuss sad, backwards, and unnecessary is non-zero? I, personally, as an American citizen, think the United States needs to back off on all kinds of things and stop being a global hypocrite. Sending in the troops and propping up tin-pot dictators just because they say they’re going after the same people the US is doesn’t help anything. Avoiding signing UN treaties on Human Rights just because it might theoretically get in the way of the US acting unilaterally some time in the future or because the esteemed Senators from the Old Confederacy get the rubes out to vote by bringing up the specter of the scary foreigners is sick. If that’s an actual reflection of a US-led world order I’d be more than happy to see the US stop leading.

  9. Suido says

    mudpuddles #7:

    Perhaps something like “Married men, just like big governments, can learn some fucking self control when relationships with partners are concerned”

    QFT.

    @haitied, #10:

    Well done missing mudpuddles point. It’s not about masturbation, it’s about honesty and trust. Touch yourself all you want, but if you’re actively hiding it from your partner because you know they’d be upset, that would be considered by most people to be a breach of trust within the relationship. Just as tapping allies phone calls is a breach of trust. The analogy is sound.

  10. Trickster Goddess says

    Here’s a tip: copy and paste the article title into Google News and you will find the full article on another website. This works with many pay wall articles. Some companies also have a deal with Google that redirects from there will bypass the paywall.

  11. Suido says

    *note – actively hiding the masturbation was the situation discussed above.

    Changing the situation to one where your wife doesn’t care if you masturbate obviously makes the analogy bad, because one of the central premises of the analogy no longer applies.

  12. says

    Suido “It’s not about masturbation, it’s about honesty and trust. Touch yourself all you want, but if you’re actively hiding it from your partner because you know they’d be upset, that would be considered by most people to be a breach of trust within the relationship. Just as tapping allies phone calls is a breach of trust.”
    That’s why I make sure to only do it in front of people. They know now that they can trust me. Plus, I get my own seat on the bus.

  13. dingojack says

    laurent – “… we went in full Fuck That Let’s Just Kill All The Two-Faced Bastards mode”

    then “let’s kill anyone with more money than me” then “let’s kill anyone (just to be sure)” and, finally, “let’s kill the silly bastard that thought killing people was a good idea in the first place” modes.

    Dingo

  14. lofgren says

    Would it really be so difficult to live up to our stated ideals?

    Um, yes?

    Seriously, it shouldn’t be easy to live up to your ideals. In fact it should be practically impossible. That ‘s what makes them “ideals.”

    If you find it easy to live up to your ideals, you probably have some pretty weak ideals.

  15. laurentweppe says

    then “let’s kill anyone with more money than me” then “let’s kill anyone (just to be sure)” and, finally, “let’s kill the silly bastard that thought killing people was a good idea in the first place” modes.

    Then “Let’s kill our neighbours so we can plunder their countries: Vive l’Emepeur!” mode: after all, no revolution can be deemed complete until the collapse of the old order leads to the birth of a new expansionist empire

  16. dingojack says

    Heh – trust the English to get their empire-building and thier revolutions the wrong-way around.
    :) Dingo

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