The Real 'Danger' Of Snowden And Manning: The US Can't Get Away With Its Powerful Hypocrisy Anymore

from the end-of-hypocrisy dept

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 hypocrisy:

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.

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Comments on “The Real 'Danger' Of Snowden And Manning: The US Can't Get Away With Its Powerful Hypocrisy Anymore”

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M W Lees-Gro?mann says:

No one is pretending anymore?

Really? Because no one here in Germany is buying what Merkel’s selling, and I really don’t understand why she’s putting up with it, either. Of course, I don’t understand how Constitutional Law professor Senator Obama who wanted transparency so easily and quickly transmogrified himself into an anti-Constitutional champion so bad he makes Eugene Debs look like a fascist control freak.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: No one is pretending anymore?

I don’t understand how Constitutional Law professor Senator Obama who wanted transparency so easily and quickly transmogrified himself into an anti-Constitutional champion

You have it backwards. He has always been an anti-Constitutional champion. Until he got elected, he had to hide it.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: No one is pretending anymore?

Not necessarily. He were probably naive and thought he can change things. Then got into office and were whipped in line with his predecessors.

Notice this: despite the change in presidents in the US, even political sides (R/D), certain policies remained the same. Like the foreign policy in general, or the foreign intelligence policy.

This suggest that another interest group from the background has the real control of the government, while the presidents remain PR puppets.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No one is pretending anymore?

“..he was either blackmailed by what he has in the closet by the intelligence community…”

If that was the case then the “intelligence community” runs the USA and the countries it operates in. A multinational and completely unaccountable surveillance apparatus that has seized control over the elected leadership. A silent coup no one saw take place.

Ninja (profile) says:

rather than dropping the language of freedom and openness, of democracy and liberty, to actually embrace those principles

We need fundamental changes in society and humanity for that to happen.

I think I will echo many here and everywhere else that we are fooled for the rhetorics at times. I will admit Obama’s first speech was simply awesome. It touched many in areas we are terribly lacking support. A lot of us believed the words, believed change. That may be one reason why they managed to get away with hypocrisy for so long. I mean when you have a bastion of things everyone aspire and the rest of the world seem to be sinking deep in the mud it’s easy to get fooled by that light. But in the end it’s only that, light devoid of substance.

Makes one feel depressed eh? I do think there’s hope though.

out_of_the_blue says:

"Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue."

Sorry to whoever, can’t recall the source (it’s old).

I’d rather politicians go on being hypocrites rather than openly tyrants, as preserves the illusion that resistance might be effective. But they’re arming for open tyranny, just need more drones and killer robots.

Anyhoo, these authors underestimate the capacity for hypocrisy. It’s not at all removed from use, but will go on much the same as now, just as the Federal Reserve and bankers keep inflating the money supply at $85 billion a month: the currency you hold keeps becoming less valuable but everything goes on, adjusting incrementally. — Modern tyranny is based on sound testing over the last century and scientifically calculated to be irresistible. There is not here, and won’t be, any sharp breaks (giving clear cause and opportunity for uprising), just every day we’re less free.

Oh, and the ref’d article is in accord with my view of the Snowden “leak” as limited hangout psyop: it’s just accustoming everyone to plan A: open tyranny.

The Rich will always seize more power until stopped. The only non-violent way to stop them is high income tax rates.


Anonymous Coward says:

“.. spying on foreign politicians, even allies, is what countries do”

And you’ll here the same type of statement from embezzlers who get caught embezzling, carjackers who get caught carjacking and every other criminal lowlife who gets caught doing something that pretty much everyone actually disapproves of quite strongly.

Saying it over and over doesn’t make it true, it just makes it more obvious that it isn’t. Like being a 2nd hand car dealer who feels the need to call himself ‘honest’

Starke (profile) says:

Re: uuuhhh....

Using your own (political) hypocrisy as soft power in international negotiations. Getting what you want by touting an altruistic ideology you claim to support, but in fact do not, making standing against your position look like trying to work against the common good, even when there are other, legitimate, reasons to say “no”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m thinking a separate tree.

Ideology: Powerful Hypocrisy (Culture)

– Spread Democracy: +1 on all attacks outside your territory. +2 if at peace before attack. 50% chance to stay at peace.
– Freedom of speech: Immune to revolting citizens. Must have a Prison building in every city.
– Trade agreements: +1 gold per citizen. 1 Free technology opponent has researched per turn. Own research disabled.
– Free markets: +1 gold per corporation. You decide which corporations make it (requires the “Corporations Are Sociopathic People(tm) expansion)
– Public health care: -1 citizen in each city. +10 gold per city

If you have all these traits, two new wonders become available:
– Congress: You can pick and choose the benefits from two separate forms of state (like, say, Communism and Fascism), You can change these without reverting to anarchy first.
– Wall street: A second form of tax income becomes available. This tax does not reduce happiness, but it does reduce production.

Miko says:

It’s hopelessly naive to expect the U.S. to start “practicing what it preaches.” Consider how the response of U.S. officials to the Snowden leaks was not to condemn the NSA but to try to pretend that its actions are in some way beneficial to the American people. Clearly what’s actually happening is the U.S. is being forced to start preaching what it practices.

HegemonicDistortion says:

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.

The effect or “benefit” of our systematic and bribed hypocrisy hasn’t only been in the realm of foreign/global affairs, and perhaps not even primarily so, as this quote illustrates. It has also acted as domestic propaganda, leading a very substantial percentage of Americans to strongly believe that the US is always on the side of right, a force for moral good, and to trust that the government needs whatever powers it claims and is justified in whatever actions it takes in order to protect us and look out for our interests.

Starke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In a way, it’s fallout from the propaganda machines of WWII. That strand of jingoism didn’t go away. The Cold War, and the Bipolar system gave it the tone it’s kept. (“We’re the good guys, fighting the ‘evil empire.'”) And, since the fall of the Soviet Union it’s survived mostly unabated.

There was some general cynicism towards it, starting in the 70s, with Nixon. After the end of the cold war, there was a sense that the American public was less satisfied with the clear delineation between “us and them”, because there was no “them” anymore.

But, then September 11th happened, and… well, just being able to type “September 11th happened” is enough to indicate where, as a culture, we gleefully scampered back to the cold war era mindset, only with a different opponent. And we’ve been sliding back out of that mindset, into our previous state of cynicism.

That said, the entire do what we say, not what we do, approach to international politics has been ridiculously lucrative. We lost a lot of soft power, when Bush pushed too hard for war, and now with Manning and Snowden, we’re losing even more. But, the ability to pretend we were the heroes of the world bought us a lot of influence.

horse with no name says:

The real danger isn't where you see it

The real danger of Snowdon and other well meaning data dumpers is the effect they have on how the US can negotiate with other countries, how they deal with military and political issues.

For my mind, politics is a bit like playing poker. You generally never know for sure what the other side has, and sometimes they act like they have a great hand even when they don’t (here’s looking at you Saddam). Yes, the US is guilty of trying to catch a look at the opponent’s cards, and they may even be paying someone in the back to peek over people’s shoulders, but they are still not really certain.

What Snowdon and other data dumpers do is they force the US to put their cards on the table, face up, and they let everyone else play against that. The others aren’t held to the same standards, they spy and peep and intercept as well, but only the US for the moment is being forced to play with an open hand – which means the others can react without having to take any risks.

The intentions of the data dumpers are usually not so bad – but the implications are not going to benefit Americans at all.

PS: Will this post get blocked into moderation too? The Techdirt crew is so efficient in blocking my home IP!

Anonymous Coward says:

So What

These here Younited States Of -merica have a really bad case of 800 pound gorilla, or so they think (it’s called arrogance). They figure nobody can touch them, despite evidence to the contrary. Problem is there are a few other gorillas, notably China and Russia, that are gaining weight. Might be that they’ll catch up soon. In the mean time, if the US keeps p—ing the rest of the world off, the weight gain may not be necessary. 15 or 20 200 pound gorillas trumps one 800 pound beast regardless of how big a club he can carry. This government’s actions are putting U.S. citizens in serious danger.

Charvi3 (profile) says:

About Snowden

Let him come back as a “WhistleBlower”…and let him think he is going to go free…first of all it is treason when someone takes “Classified Information” about any country…look at Manning…so, let him thing what he thinks..he is bi-polar…he wants to “trick and fool” all of us and more or less get away with treason…there is a saying…”Give Enough Rope For Someone To Hang Themselves” and they will do it..besides…the C.I.A belongs to the group Skull & Bones…one of those Secret Societies that is running America and the N.S.A. is the front man for the C.I.A. which by the way…they are the ones that were involved with JFK being killed…old man Bush was head of the C.I.A. IN 1963…believe me…to me that is what is covering up for Snowden…no doubt in my mind…but, lure him over here under the ‘WhistleBlower” laws…and he will think he will go free…he will get the surprise of his life..

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