The end of the era of easy US hypocrisy

In an important article in the November-December 2013 issue of Foreign Policy magazine titled The End of Hypocrisy: American Foreign Policy in the Age of Leaks, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore lay out in great detail what I have been saying here, and that is that the main benefit of the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaks is that by providing incontrovertible documentary evidence of what the US government does, it has resulted in seriously damaging the US government’s ability to lie and use hypocrisy in its favor.

The ability to do one thing in private and say another, even completely opposite, thing in public was one of the foundations of US policymaking. So the US could rail against cyberwar as a bad thing and call for punishments against countries who use it, while secretly waging such war against other countries. It could condemn governments putting their own people under close surveillance as a clear demonstration of their lack of democracy (remember all those charges against the evil Chinese monitoring their people internet use?) while secretly doing it themselves. It could denounce economic espionage by other countries (again China was the big villain) while using the NSA to spy on foreign business entities to gain an economic edge.

As Farrell and Finnemore say:

The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.

Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices — and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.

Hypocrisy is central to Washington’s soft power — its ability to get other countries to accept the legitimacy of its actions — yet few Americans appreciate its role. Liberals tend to believe that other countries cooperate with the United States because American ideals are attractive and the U.S.-led international system is fair.

Of course, the United States has gotten away with hypocrisy for some time now. It has long preached the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation, for example, and has coerced some states into abandoning their atomic ambitions. At the same time, it tacitly accepted Israel’s nuclearization and, in 2004, signed a formal deal affirming India’s right to civilian nuclear energy despite its having flouted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by acquiring nuclear weapons.

The reason the United States has until now suffered few consequences for such hypocrisy is that other states have a strong interest in turning a blind eye.

Although prior to Snowden’s disclosures, many experts were aware — or at least reasonably certain — that the U.S. government was involved in hacking against China, Washington was able to maintain official deniability. Protected from major criticism, U.S. officials were planning a major public relations campaign to pressure China into tamping down its illicit activities in cyberspace, starting with threats and perhaps culminating in legal indictments of Chinese hackers. Chinese officials, although well aware that the Americans were acting hypocritically, avoided calling them out directly in order to prevent further damage to the relationship.

But Beijing’s logic changed after Snowden’s leaks. China suddenly had every reason to push back publicly against U.S. hypocrisy. After all, Washington could hardly take umbrage with Beijing for calling out U.S. behavior confirmed by official U.S. documents. Indeed, the disclosures left China with little choice but to respond publicly. If it did not point out U.S. hypocrisy, its reticence would be interpreted as weakness. At a news conference after the revelations, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense insisted that the scandal “reveal[ed] the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security” of the United States.

The United States has found itself flatfooted.

Manning’s and Snowden’s leaks mark the beginning of a new era in which the U.S. government can no longer count on keeping its secret behavior secret. Hundreds of thousands of Americans today have access to classified documents that would embarrass the country if they were publicly circulated.

It is an article well worth reading in full. It not only shows once again why Edward Snowden has done the entire world a valuable public service, it explains why the US and UK governments are so furious about it. It is not just about the leaks or that the leaks are harming the government’s ‘war on terrorism’. It is that by conclusively exposing the massive lies that undergird US policy at home and abroad in a way that cannot be denied, it has curbed the US’s ability to secretly subvert democracy and the rights of people while pretending to uphold them. The US and UK governments feel they have to throw the book at leakers because of fears of the damage to them if the “hundreds of thousands of Americans today [who] have access to classified documents that would embarrass the country” emulate Snowden and Manning and decide that it is in the public interest to release them.

Because of Snowden, there is no going back. The days of the US preaching to other countries about how they should behave, something that I found gratingly sanctimonious at the best of times, are over. The US can never again regain the moral high ground. Now it has to deal with other countries on the basic of balancing political interests, just like every other nation.


  1. DonDueed says

    I think you’re somewhat overly optimistic there, Mano. I fully expect the US government to continue to behave hypocritically.

    It has long been the case that it has practiced a kind of collective cognitive dissonance. Otherwise it could not have taken such a holier-than-thou stance in the first place. The fact that these leaks made that dissonance undeniable isn’t going to suddenly make it stop.

    After all, many people in and out of the government, in the US and abroad, were already aware, fully or partially, of the things the leaks revealed. That didn’t end the hypocrisy. Why should the fact that more people know about it? Do you really think that this will significantly change public opinion, enough to affect the relevant policies and practices?

    I don’t see any signs of that happening to any great extent.

  2. says

    [O]ne of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is.

    Most? Some may be that naive, but a large number of politicians -- and Americans in general -- take the “my country, right or wrong” and “US first and only” attitude towards international relations. Americans know that the only way to get cheap imports and cheap oil is through oppressive foreign policies. It’s easier to close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears than give up cheap consumerism.

    The problem is, while their eyes were shut and hearing blocked, that same foreign policy was enacted domestically. It’s only when they find the barbed wire is as much imprisoning them as keeping out others that they start to object.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The US has repeatedly condemned the bloody slaughter of innocents as well, even while napalming Vietnamese villages, supplying Saddam Hussein with materials for chemical weaponry, or enforcing brutal sanctions leading to the otherwise easily preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

    Yet the Johnsons and Nixons, the Clintons and Bushes, and their impeccably-coiffed underlings, have never ceased to “tut-tut” at others for lesser crimes than those widely known to be simultaneously occurring at their orders. It doesn’t fool anybody but the Chris Matthewses of the US media, but we have a sufficient preponderance of those to make it all worthwhile.

  4. Chiroptera says

    Unfortunately, the main audience for US government propaganda is the US public. As long as the hypocritical PR pieces work to keep the general public supporting the US government and its policies, it really doesn’t have an incentive to change.

    By and large, a significant portion of the voting (and potentially voting) public is too ill informed to really understand what the government is doing and why. They are too under educated to be able to critically evaluate their sources of information. And when evidence does reach into their consciousness, there is too much of a tendency to uncritically accept that government officials are the good guys: either the leakers are liars, or the government is doing it “for our own good.” And even when they do realize that the US government is up to no good, they are either too easily distracted by the next scandal to focus on any one problem long enough to deal with it, or they are too easily accepting of the superficial “fixes” that are offered.

    I suspect that as long as the US has the clout to streamroll the majority of its position on the world, the opinions of other countries won’t be what matters the most to the majority of US officials. As long as they can keep the more-or-less constant support of the masses, they will continue what they are doing.

    I keep hoping that I’m just a pessimist. But I’m pessimistic about that.

  5. says

    When I started reading the blockquote, I thought at first it said “leaders like Snowden and Manning”, and then I realized it was “leakers”. But then I thought: y’know, we could do with leaders with that kind of integrity. We in the western democracies could do worse (and I mean generally, obviously, since I’m not USan) than people like Snowden and Manning as part of leadership, having a role in a legislature sort of thing.

    Sadly, as the above, I think that the level of hypocrisy the US govt is willing to operate with on a general level has steadily increased since the Cold War started, to the point where like a smoker who has trouble appreciating fine gradations in smell or taste, the hypocrisy-sensor on most USan people is just plain burnt out from constant immersion in a high-concentration bath of the stuff.


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