The U.S. is losing its hypocrisy advantage

October 22, 2013
(Washington Post)
(Associated Press)

Martha Finnemore and I have an article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs on the Snowden revelations, and how the United States  is no longer able to rely on easy hypocrisy. The article builds on the same research that I discussed here last week.

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.

Our argument is straightforward. The U.S.’s private behavior is often starkly at odds with its public ideals. Because the U.S. is the most powerful state in the international system, it’s often able to get away with this. The leaders of other states know that the U.S. is behaving hypocritically, but often find it easier to say nothing about it. Leaked documents from Manning, Snowden and others are making it much harder for other states to pretend that they don’t know what the U.S.  is doing. The U.S.  is less able to hypocritically pretend that it’s not doing stuff that it is doing, while other states are less able to hypocritically ignore what the U.S.  is doing. The result is that systematized hypocrisy is becoming a lot more costly for the U.S.  than it used to be.

The recent dispute between Brazil and the U.S.  over NSA spying is a perfect example of this dynamic in action (we’d have discussed it if it hadn’t happened after we’d finished writing the article). Leaked documents from Snowden make it clear that the U.S.  was spying on Brazil’s government and energy company. It’s very likely that the Brazilian government suspected that the U.S.  was spying on it before the revelations. However, it suited Brazil to pretend that it didn’t know what was happening so that it could pursue a closer economic relationship with the U.S.

After the documents were leaked, it became impossible for Brazil to ignore U.S.  spying. Brazil’s president canceled a state visit to Washington, which she had hoped would revitalize the U.S.-Brazil relationship, and she made an angry speech at the U.N. General Assembly. She almost certainly would have preferred to have gone ahead with the state visit, but didn’t have any choice once the documents were revealed. The blow to national pride (and to her party’s chances of winning reelection) would have been too great.

In the piece, we argue that the new ease of leaking has major repercussions:

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. As the recent revelations show, in the age of the cellphone camera and the flash drive, even the most draconian laws and reprisals will not prevent this information from leaking out. As a result, Washington faces what can be described as an accelerating hypocrisy collapse — a dramatic narrowing of the country’s room to maneuver between its stated aspirations and its sometimes sordid pursuit of self-interest. The U.S. government, its friends, and its foes can no longer plausibly deny the dark side of U.S. foreign policy and will have to address it head-on.

It’ll be interesting to watch how they play out.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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