Missing Links

The Hypocrisy Audit

Double standards have always been a part of U.S. foreign policy. It's time to figure out how many should no longer be tolerated.

The official position of the United States is that Europe should allow Turkey to join the European Union. Turkey’s entry would give its citizens the right to travel freely to any other EU member state. This prodding to Europeans to embrace Turkey comes from the same country that is building a 700-mile-long wall along its border with Mexico.

When the South Korean government bailed out Hyundai Electronics Industries in 2001, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution urging the Bush administration "to assure that the unlawful bailout by the Republic of Korea is stopped." This July, the U.S. Congress approved a far larger bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants. The U.S. government has often pressured poor African countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS into not buying the cheaper generic drugs offered by manufacturers in Brazil or India. Yet, when the United States faced a potential health crisis during the anthrax attacks in 2001, Tommy Thompson, then the secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that the United States was ready to buy generic versions of Cipro, an anti-anthrax drug owned by Bayer, from manufacturers in India if the German drug company refused to drop its price.

These are just a few examples from a long list of contradictions, inconsistencies, and double standards that are all too common in the way the United States interacts with the world. U.S. officials usually justify the double standards by arguing that the world is too messy and that there is no one-size-fits-all foreign policy. Different situations demand different responses, they say. Perhaps so, critics argue, but cozying up to oil-producing tyrants while trumpeting the spread of democracy and the protection of human rights has less to do with global messiness than with hypocrisy.

Indeed, the inconsistency most anti-American critics cherish regards the dictators the superpower chooses to hate and those it befriends. Why is the United States such a close ally of an oil-rich, Islamist monarchy in the Middle East that was home to almost all the 9/11 hijackers — Saudi Arabia — while remaining the sworn enemy of Iran, another oil-rich, Islamist nation in the same neighborhood? When Gen. Pervez Musharraf came to power, the United States regularly denounced his authoritarian rule while imposing sanctions on Pakistan for becoming less democratic. Until 9/11, that is. Then, almost overnight, the United States dropped the sanctions and started calling Musharraf one of its closest allies.

The rationale behind each one of these double standards is well known and some are perfectly justified. And it is true that a superpower with so many competing interests is bound to respond to a messy and volatile world in contradictory ways. The fact that the United States’ dependence on Saudi oil muffles its criticism of that regime does not mean that the United States should feel constrained from pressuring the tyrants of Burma to abandon their murderous ways. Unfortunately, the valid argument that U.S. double standards are not only inevitable but sometimes even desirable has led to a dangerous complacency. Not all double standards and contradictions in U.S. foreign policy are inevitable, necessary, or beneficial. Some are obsolete and greatly damage America’s reputation in the world. One obvious example is the U.S. embargo of Cuba; the policy’s failure is now even accepted by a growing segment of Cuban exiles in South Florida. Why should the United States keep a useless embargo and stubbornly refuse to engage a regime while happily trading with Vietnam and even talking to North Korea and Syria?

Those are just a few examples, but there are many others. How many? Enough to deserve more scrutiny than they have received in decades. There are many reasons for scrutinizing American double standards, including the broad consensus that repairing the world’s respect for the United States is now a top priority. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more than 7 in 10 Americans think that the United States is less respected by other countries. And, for the first time, a majority of Americans now see the country’s loss of international respect as a major problem.

Therefore, here is one suggestion for the next president of the United States: Ask for an audit of America’s foreign-policy double standards. Just producing such a list will be a salutary exercise. It will not only show how long the list is, but it will also open the official explanations commonly used to rationalize the contradictions to renewed scrutiny and, in the process, reveal the economic interests or political passions behind them. Understanding the logic that sustains each of the double standards now in place will help in deciding which ones should be jettisoned. Some will emerge as untouchable (Saudi Arabia), while others will be revealed in all their obsolescence (Cuba). Hopefully, some of them will be eliminated.

Of course, reducing U.S. foreign-policy inconsistencies and contradictions will not eliminate the powerful waves of anti-Americanism that have always existed and that have crested in recent years. But it will certainly reduce the rhetorical ammunition available to America’s critics. For free.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola