Daniel W. Drezner

American Hypocrisy, R.I.P.?

Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have a must-read essay in Foreign Affairs about the impact that Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are having on a little-discussed power resource for the United States: it’s ability to act hypocritically on the world stage: The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a ...

Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have a must-read essay in Foreign Affairs about the impact that Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are having on a little-discussed power resource for the United States: it’s ability to act hypocritically on the world stage:

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.

This is really a terrific essay, and I agree wholeheartedly with Farrell and Finnemore’s theoretical points about hypocrisy as a vital power resource for the United States. But — and you knew there was a "but" — I’d dispute the empirical premises a bit.

First, the article lumps the effect of the Wikileaks cables that Manning leaked with Snowden’s revelations about the depth and breadth of NSA surveillance.  I’d posit that the only thing these two cases had in common was the participation of Wikileaks.  The most surprising thing about the diplomatic cables that were leaked wasn’t the occasional cable that was at variance with U.S. public rhetoric — it was the surprising degree of consistency between the public and private diplomacy of the United States.  As I blogged at the time

There are no Big Lies. Indeed, Blake Hounshell’s original tweet holds: "the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately." Assange — and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning — seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they’re in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission — Bob Gates probably didn’t mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that "Russian democracy has disappeared." Still, I’m not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.

If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff.

I’d wager that assessment still holds up — Cablegate had far greater ramifications for U.S. allies and adversaries than it did for the United States.  Manning’s leaks didn’t expose U.S. perfidy so much as the hypocrisy of other countries.  This suggests that even when looking at hypocrisy, the U.S. possessed a relative advantage. 

Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, on the other hand, do expose considerable amounts of U.S. hypocrisy, as Farrell and Finnemore document in their article.  The U.S. reaction to Snowden’s flight — particularly the grounding of a Latin American head of state — exacerbated the issue even further, eroding any Westphalian sympathies that might have existed in the international system. 

The question I have is whether this will lead to permanent diplomatic damage or just a few Claude Rains impersonations. Over at Crooked Timber, Farrell pushes back on my blog post with this point: 

What is interesting is not whether France (or Mexico, or Brazil, or Germany) is being hypocritical in pretending to be shocked at what the US is doing. It’s whether their response (hypocritical as it may be) has real political consequences. And it surely does. The decision of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US (and start to disentangle Brazil from what had been an increasingly cooperative relationship) is one example. I have few doubts that if Rousseff had had the option, she would have preferred to have ignored US spying, and gone on with the visit and the burgeoning relationship. But she didn’t have that choice (or at least, it would have been domestically very costly). Similarly, the EU Parliament’s decision on Monday to reinstate rules restricting personal data transfer to the US are a direct response to the Snowden revelations. It is going to be tough for European governments to push back on these rules, even though they would probably like to, because they’re going to face a public outcry if they do. France can’t summon the US ambassador to ream him out about NSA surveillance one day, and effectively accede to NSA surveillance the next. However hypocritical this behavior is, it has consequences. 

Farrell might be correct, though even here there are empirical distinctions to be made.  As Farrell implies, the problem is that European governments engage in the exact same hypocrisy, just with fewer intelligence capabilities.  The substantive effect of these revelations in France or Mexico to date have been surprisingly muted.  So far, the biggest policy blowback has been Rousseff’s cancelling of the state visit to the United States.  That’s not nothing — but if that’s the worst of the damage, then even this episode won’t lead to that much of a hit to U.S. interests. 

That said, I concur with Farrell and Finnemore that the worst of the damage might be yet to come.  The interesting theoretical and empirical question is whether a weakening of "hypocritical power" has a disproportionate effect on a hegemon.  Even if the U.S. is somewhat less hypocritical than rival great powers, the nature of the liberal international order means that hypocrisy hurts the U.S. more.  As Farrell and Finnemore observe: 

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 U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

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, U.S. 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 U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate. 

Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration adopts new policies and rhetoric designed to reduce the exposed levels of hypocrisy.  So far, administration officials have veered in the opposite direction — the mantra of "we’re only using this super-high-powered surveillance stuff on foreigners, not Americans" has tarnished America’s image abroad even more.   Unless the U.S. government changes its tune, then we’re about to get a good empirical test of what happens when the hegemon’s "lubricating oil of hypocrisy" evaporates.


UPDATE:  One final coda on this hypocrisy question.  It’s worth noting that Snowden’s revelations about U.S. hypocrisy are petty tame when compared to revelations about, say, U.S. intelligence activities during the Vietnam era.  America’s "hypocritical power" was tarnished pretty badly back then, but eventually recovered rather nicely.  One could argue that this was due to a combination of a) greater transparency (the Church Committee); b) less hypocrisy (the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights); c) ideational renewal (the Reagan administration’s rhetoric); and d) the overarching Soviet threat.  The first three elements of this recovery recipe are doable, but the overarching threat just isn’t the same.  I do wonder whether the absence of that threat renders hegemons more vulnerable to an erosion in hypocritical power. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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