By Mike Masnick
We were among those who noted that the recent stories about the NSA spying on politicians in Brazil, France, Mexico, Germany and elsewhere seemed more like political theater than anything else. After all, spying on foreign politicians, even allies, is what countries do. So the supposed “outrage” seemed somewhat silly. It really felt like the kind of thing that politicians felt they had to do following the revelations, because everyone expected them to do so. Any actual outrage was likely tempered by the fact that their own intelligence agencies basically were trying to do the same damn thing to everyone else (and some of them have probably succeeded).
However, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have an astoundingly good article for Foreign Affairs called The End of Hypocrisy which makes a point so obvious, so clear and so almost certainly right that almost everyone has ignored it until now.
Much of the article is technically behind a paywall, but hopefully the link above gets you past it (Farrell seems to be handing out links that go through the paywall on Twitter like candy on Halloween, so if you still can’t get in, just ask). The basic premise is this: the leaks from the likes of Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning are hardly earth shattering in terms of what they reveal. As plenty of people have noted, most of what they’ve released has been widely suspected, if not known by many. While the specifics really do matter for those aiming to get a handle on what the US (and others) are doing, and to stop the really egregious behavior, the idea that any of these revelations really harmed active intelligence gathering appears to be little more than smoke and mirrors. As the article notes, even with all the rhetoric about “harm” caused by these leaks, officials have “often struggled to explain exactly why these leaks pose such an enormous threat.”
What Farrell and Finnemore note, instead, is that the really powerful and devastating impact of these leaks is not directly on the intelligence community, but rather on the US’s use of hypocrisy as a policy tool. Again, many will point out, it is no secret that the US can and often is horribly hypocritical in the policies it demands of others, compared to the policies it enforces on itself. Plenty of people (including, at times, us) have called out those hypocrisies. Instead, what the article notes, is that for quite some time, the US has actually been able to effectively use this hypocrisy as a policy tool to great effect.
In short: many of the US government’s global policies really only hung together so long as everyone pretended the US wasn’t hypocritical. And that’s worked for decades.
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.
The real threat then to all of this activity is that that form of political hypocrisy is no longer possible, because (1) the public in other countries won’t accept it any more leading to (2) politicians having to point out the hypocrisy and (inevitably) (3) other global powers taking advantage of that now public hypocrisy to further their own interests.
As the article points out, the hypocrisy is often not overt, or even consciously done (though, clearly, in some cases, it is). But, quite frequently, it’s done by those who feel they must do these things “in the best interests of the country,” even as they’ll scream and yell and condemn any other nation that does the same.
But, the reality is that so much of our foreign policy for the past century has been premised on this framework of getting away with being hypocritical, and leaks like Manning’s and especially Snowden’s threaten in a very real way to undermine that framework. And, when the entire premise of your foreign policy framework is built on this shell game of hypocrisy, that can be a really serious problem. Not for any of the reasons those fretting about Snowden’s leaks tell you, of course, but if the US can’t base its foreign policy decisions on its own hypocrisy, it might have to start acting honestly, and that’s not how things have worked in decades.
The article details how this system of US hypocrisy, with every other country turning a blind eye, worked in part because the incentives worked perfectly. Other countries often were beneficiaries of such hyporcisy:
Given how much they benefit from the global public goods Washington provides, they have little interest in calling the hegemon on its bad behavior. Public criticism risks pushing the U.S. government toward self-interested positions that would undermine the larger world order. Moreover, the United States can punish those who point out the inconsistency in its actions by downgrading trade relations or through other forms of direct retaliation. Allies thus usually air their concerns in private. Adversaries may point fingers, but few can convincingly occupy the moral high ground. Complaints by China and Russia hardly inspire admiration for their purer policies.
Furthermore, it points out, the fact that the US has been able to get away with this for so long has just perpetuated the issue. US politicians probably don’t feel like they’re being hypocritical, as discussed above, but part of it is pure complacency. They’ve gotten away with it so many times in so many ways for so many years, that it’s become the way things are done. And these leaks may undermine all of that.
So, now what?
Farrell and Finnemore suggest there are two likely paths, both of which will make the country less hypocritical, but not necessarily in a good way. As they warn, the “easiest” course of action, would be to just drop the hypocritical language. That is, stop arguing about trying to spread freedom and democracy around the globe, and just flat out admit that the US government does what it does entirely based on what it believes is best for the country. Russia and China often do exactly that. Of course, while this may be the easier path (and, undoubtedly one that some politicians will pursue), it has serious problems, in part because it makes it significantly more difficult to actually accomplish those goals. It’s basically ceding any moral high ground that the US has had. And while some people will laugh at the idea that the US ever really had a moral high ground, it’s quite naive to ignore the power that “high ground” position has had at times to impact changes around the globe, even if the true reasons were self-interest. As they warn, this approach could lead to serious problems as “the bonds of trade and cooperation that Washington has spent decades building could unravel.”
The much more difficult approach, but the one that likely has the most long-term positive impact is to get rid of the hypocrisy in the other way: that is, rather than dropping the language of freedom and openness, of democracy and liberty, to actually embrace those principles. That is, to make the moral high ground an actual thing, rather than a foundation built on lies.
A better alternative would be for Washington to pivot in the opposite direction, acting in ways more compatible with its rhetoric. This approach would also be costly and imperfect, for in international politics, ideals and interests will often clash. But the U.S. government can certainly afford to roll back some of its hypocritical behavior without compromising national security. A double standard on torture, a near indifference to casualties among non-American civilians, the gross expansion of the surveillance state — none of these is crucial to the country’s well-being, and in some cases, they undermine it. Although the current administration has curtailed some of the abuses of its predecessors, it still has a long way to go.
If we were to actually move in that direction, many of us believe it would be a powerful and wonderful thing. Imagine a United States that actually lived up to the ideals we claim to live by? If that was the end result — and again, the likelihood of this happening may be incredibly slim — then the efforts of Manning and Snowden will be much more powerful and important than either of them likely imagined. Of course, if the US were to drop the hypocrisy and focus on its ideals, it might stop persecuting both of them for their actions as well.
Either way, the article is incredibly powerful in reframing much of what is happening, and there’s much more in there that’s worth reading than I covered here. It appears that Farrell is planning to continue to explore this concept and how it relates to what’s happening in the news every day, and I imagine it will be worth paying attention to.