U.S. President Donald Trump can be accused of having many faults, but hypocrisy is not one of them. To be sure, Trump is wildly inconsistent. His critics have found great sport digging up old tweets in which he condemns political rivals for doing something that he himself blithely does today. But hypocrisy requires a minimal degree of self-awareness. It also requires clear understanding of both one’s own interests and of public norms that may frustrate self-dealing.  Repeated gaffes and insults suggest that Trump has no such knowledge. Far from being a Machiavellian schemer, he seems unable to recognize the difference between what one professes in public and what one does in private, much less the utility of exploiting that difference. 

In moderation, Trump’s lack of control might be refreshing. When in a February interview, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly pressed Trump about his relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin—“a killer”—Trump responded that there are many killers and asked rhetorically whether “our country was so innocent.” He pointed out aspects of U.S. behavior that both liberals and conservatives prefer to gloss over. Under ordinary circumstances, a presidential acknowledgment that the United States has regularly killed people under sketchy circumstances might spur serious debate. But nothing about Trump is moderate. Trump wants not only to acknowledge America’s dark side but to embrace it, building U.S. policy on naked self-interest and short-term advantage.

Artful hypocrisy has been one of the United States’ most important tools for building the international liberal order.

The problem is that hypocrisy is as crucial to international politics as to personal relations. Blunt pursuit of self-interest is rarely appealing to others. American leaders used to push the self-serving myth that U.S. interests and the world’s interests were mostly the same, and that America was the one indispensable nation. Now, Trump has driven a highly visible wedge between American interests and the world’s. Making America Great Again might be an attractive slogan to a large minority of American voters, but it is unlikely to attract non-Americans, who fear that Trump wants to make America and himself great at their expense, something that, in turn, will make greatness harder to achieve.

Even if Trump wanted to say one thing and do another, he lacks the social and political skills that are needed for successful hypocrisy. Good hypocrites can present self-interested actions as disinterested statesmanship. They skillfully weave concealments across the gaps between their public and private personas, stymieing the release of unflattering information while ensuring that favorable facts are widely circulated. Trump, in contrast, rarely invokes principles, repeatedly blurts out things he shouldn’t say in public, and presides over the leakiest presidential administration in living memory.

Trump in the Oval Office, April 2017.
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

In terms of foreign policy, abandoning hypocrisy will make it easier for Trump to cement alliances of convenience with brutal regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has identified human rights talk as an obstacle to advancing America’s interests, and has made it clear that he is not interested in pressing allies on sensitive issues that might impede cooperation on security and economic matters.

Yet artful hypocrisy has been one of the United States’ most important tools for building an international liberal order centered on the values of rule of law, free markets, free speech, and democracy. When America’s behavior deviates from the liberal values that it suggests everyone else should follow, hypocrisy has provided the lubricant that prevents the gears of this order from seizing up. Pretense and convenience on both sides has allowed the United States to continue pretending that it is behaving well, and the country’s allies to pretend that they do not notice its bad behavior. 

Trump’s mixture of crude rhetoric and political incompetence threatens to upset both sides of this implicit bargain. In contrast to the earlier administrations that supported the brutal actions of Latin American juntas or blocked the reappointment of a WTO judge who made inconvenient rulings, the Trump administration does not even pay lip service to the global liberal order. The George W. Bush administration at least nodded toward human rights norms when it made contorted legal arguments that waterboarding is not torture. And when the Barack Obama administration declined to intervene in Syria and relied on drone strikes as a tool of counterterrorism policy, international criticism was muted because it seemed at least plausible that Obama was doing his best to make difficult ethical and security tradeoffs.

Although hypocrisy has sometimes allowed the United States to deviate from professed liberal values, it has also restrained Washington from excesses.

But when Trump congratulates the president of the Philippines for thousands of extrajudicial killings, or declines to complain about Turkey’s presidential guards beating up protesters on the streets of Washington, it is hard for allies to look the other way. They cannot pretend that the United States is committed to the rule of law, which they would prefer to do, in order to soothe domestic opposition to cooperation with the United States. And when his administration threatens to ignore World Trade Organization rulings wholesale and describes NAFTA as the worst trade deal ever, it suggests that the United States is not even committed to the international economic order that it created.

Policymaking often involves tragic choices—instances in which deeply held values, such as freedom and security, clash. Managing such situations is the central task of any successful government.  Doing so requires skill, but it also requires some credibility as an ethical champion of both conflicting values. Yet to benefit from ethics, one must have them, or appear to have them, in the first place. The Trump administration, with its strongman theory of politics and threats and public appeals to U.S. self-interest, will hardly enjoy the benefit of the doubt on tricky issues. 

In the short term, U.S. allies are unlikely to oppose Trump openly. Even the most truculent will quail at the combination of Trump’s vindictiveness and the United States’ continued economic and military power. Yet there is also little to be gained from cooperation, since Trump seems as forgetful of his benefactors as he is vengeful toward his enemies.

If hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, it is also the chain virtue uses to shackle vice. Although hypocrisy has sometimes allowed both the United States and its allies to deviate from professed liberal values and get away with it, it has also restrained them from excesses. Consider that when states deviate too far or too publicly from their professed values, others can sometimes shame them successfully into correcting their behavior, a tool human rights activists have used to good effect in recent decades. The most famous example is the Helsinki Accords, signed onto by the Warsaw Pact states, which thought the accords were a dead letter, only to find themselves repeatedly embarrassed by activists pointing out these states’ failure to live up to their promises.

Before a World Trade Organization ministerial conference in Geneva, December 2011.
Denis Balibouse / REUTERS

Unfortunately, it is impossible to shame the shameless. Trump’s failings as a hypocrite are forcing allies themselves to behave in new ways as they try to manage relations with an unpredictable and dangerous hegemon while maintaining the support of their own publics. They are engaging in the empty and temporary flattery that courtiers display toward a powerful and unpredictable tyrant whom they hope will soon be supplanted. Foreign leaders and diplomats have even developed an informal playbook for how to keep Trump happy—congratulate him on his electoral college victory, disparage Obama, and always keep the new president’s short attention span in mind. Booking rooms at Trump’s flagrantly expensive downtown Washington hotel has become a way of paying tribute. This new kind of hypocrisy is likely to corrode the international liberal order rather than lubricate it, encouraging allies and adversaries alike to embrace Trump’s contempt for norms and rules.

In that way, even if Trump is damaged by the midterm elections and only serves for one term, he will have done lasting damage to U.S. interests. Other states, which have been encouraged by Trump’s example or support to show contempt for the liberal order, are unlikely to come back into the fold quickly. It is hard to enforce piety in the congregation after the minister blasphemes from the pulpit. States that are genuinely attracted to the liberal order will fear that the United States might once again elect a leader who is opposed to it. They will be reluctant to invest in institutions and relationships that might easily be overturned.

If Trump lasts in office, and succeeds in building a lasting coalition that reshapes U.S. politics, the outlook is far worse. Even before the election, leaks and the free spread of information made it harder for the United States to maintain its traditional hypocrisy. As we wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2013, this confronted the United States with a choice—either abandon hypocrisy by embracing narrow self-interest or reduce the hypocrisy by moving closer to the values that it claims to profess (“The End of Hypocrisy,” November/December 2013). The Trump presidency, by pursuing the course of naked self-interest, has already shown the dangers of the former course. Continuing it would likely lead to a complete unraveling of the bonds of trade and cooperation that the country has so carefully constructed.

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  • HENRY FARRELL is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @henryfarrell. MARTHA FINNEMORE is University Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
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