In their essay “The End of Hypocrisy” (November/December 2013), Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that the biggest threat from leakers of classified information such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that “they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it.” According to Farrell and Finnemore, the more than 750,000 diplomatic cables and incident reports leaked by Manning and the highly classified material disclosed by Snowden have provided “documented confirmation . . . of what the United States is actually doing and why.” Thus, the country will find itself “less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words . . . and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.”

The Manning and Snowden leaks do shed light on U.S. foreign policy, sometimes in an unflattering way. But they certainly do not prove that Washington acts hypocritically. Indeed, the most compelling revelation from Manning’s leaks is the remarkable consistency between what the United States says in private and does in public. Of the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables leaked by Manning, very few show wide gaps between the actions and words of U.S. officials. What hypocrisy the cables reveal is more often that of other governments, including, for example, U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which privately implored Washington to attack Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions while publicly opposing such a strike.

Snowden’s leaks do pose a number of dilemmas for U.S. policymakers, but they don’t really expose American duplicity. As Farrell and Finnemore note, before Snowden’s disclosures, “most experts already assumed that the United States conducted cyberattacks against China, bugged European institutions, and monitored global Internet communications.” And Farrell and Finnemore offer no evidence that the United States has denied such activities. Indeed, as the National Security Agency’s website plainly states, the agency “collects, processes, and disseminates intelligence information from foreign signals for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes.” So where is the hypocrisy? One could argue that Washington acted dishonorably by criticizing other countries for collecting intelligence on their own citizens while it was doing the same thing to Americans. But that exaggerates the intrusiveness of the NSA programs Snowden revealed, which look nothing like the active monitoring of citizens practiced by authoritarian states.

Like Manning’s leaks, Snowden’s revelations also highlighted hypocrisy on the part of other governments, which reacted to the disclosures by expressing outrage over actions that they almost certainly knew were taking place and even participated in themselves. For example, when Le Monde reported that the NSA had scooped up more than 70 million French phone records, Paris lodged an official protest with Washington. But days later, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the records in question had actually been collected by the French government outside of France and then turned over to the NSA.

If Farrell and Finnemore believe, as they write, that “the U.S. government, its friends, and its foes can no longer plausibly deny the dark side of U.S. foreign policy” and that exposures of U.S. hypocrisy will transform international relations, they ought to present a clear case that U.S. foreign policy actually possesses a dark, hypocritical side. But they don’t provide much compelling evidence for that claim. In fact, one of the most striking assertions Farrell and Finnemore put forward is that although the United States “may attempt . . . to draw distinctions between China’s allegedly unacceptable hacking, aimed at stealing commercial secrets, and its own perfectly legitimate hacking of military or other security-related targets . . . those distinctions will likely fall on deaf ears.” But if U.S. hacking is, in fact, legitimate and genuinely distinct from Chinese hacking, then aren’t accusations of American hypocrisy unmerited? Farrell and Finnemore seem to be arguing that the credibility of U.S. policymakers is undermined not by facts but rather by unproven allegations and false perceptions.


Still, even if one grants Farrell and Finnemore the benefit of the doubt, or concedes that even false accusations of American hypocrisy are harmful, it is difficult to accept their larger claim: that Washington’s alleged inability “to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets” will harm the national interest by changing the way other countries act toward the United States. Manning’s and Snowden’s leaks proved embarrassing, and Washington has had to deal with some short-term diplomatic fallout. But the leaks are highly unlikely to have lasting diplomatic effects. For the sake of comparison, consider the impact of the U.S.-led “global war on terrorism.” After 9/11, U.S. actions and policies on a wide range of issues, such as torture, detention, and preventive war, pointed to a fairly wide gulf between the country’s stated principles and its actual behavior. And during the Bush administration, Washington treated some of its close European allies so poorly that their leaders responded by publicly distancing themselves from the United States. In 2002, for example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder successfully ran for reelection by trumpeting his opposition to U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

Yet none of these actions led to a wholesale change in the transatlantic alliance or to global bandwagoning against Washington. The reason should be somewhat obvious: foreign countries, particularly close U.S. allies, continue to rely heavily on American diplomatic, military, and economic power. Farrell and Finnemore assert that the potential gap between Washington’s stated values and U.S. actions “creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.” But that risk is vanishingly small: after all, the U.S.-led order greatly (even disproportionately) benefits U.S. allies, and even some rivals. Germany might be angry about the fact that the NSA bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone, but not so angry that it will leave NATO or fundamentally change its bilateral relationship with the United States. Likewise, it is hard to imagine that Brazil would curtail its significant economic ties to the United States because of the NSA’s spying on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff -- or, for that matter, that China would disengage from the World Trade Organization because the United States is hacking Chinese computers.

Farrell and Finnemore never explain why other countries would respond to U.S. hypocrisy (real or imagined) by taking steps that could end up doing them more harm than good. Throughout the post–Cold War era, even when the United States has taken actions that other countries opposed, those countries have nevertheless maintained their fealty to the U.S.-led liberal world order. That is not a bug of the international system: it is its most important feature, and an indication of its strength.

This should hardly come as news to Farrell and Finnemore, who have long been insightful observers of international politics. But they perhaps should have looked more closely at some of the very evidence they cite. Consider, for example, their interpretation of remarks made in 2010 by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said that the national security implications of Manning’s leaks would be “fairly modest.” Farrell and Finnemore claim that Gates downplayed the impact of the leaks because they did not reveal anything that was truly unexpected. But that’s not why Gates thought the effect of the leaks would be mild. “The fact is,” Gates said, “governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. . . . Some governments . . . deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. . . . So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us.”

Gates’ full statement, which Farrell and Finnemore disregard, is perhaps the most compelling refutation of their thesis: an unusually candid reminder of precisely how international cooperation works in the U.S.-led global order. Farrell and Finnemore are right to acknowledge that hypocrisy is the “lubricating oil” of that order. But they err in believing that is going to change anytime soon.

MICHAEL A. COHEN is a Fellow at the Century Foundation.


We hoped to provoke a good debate with our essay, and we are grateful to Michael Cohen for his admirably clear and forcefully argued response. Cohen’s case is not convincing, however. He argues that the United States is not hypocritical, although its allies and enemies are. He then writes that even if the United States were hypocritical, it would not matter, since other countries would still have no choice but to continue to work with it. Both claims are wrong.

Hypocrisy is, in fact, a pervasive element of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, Washington has extolled human rights, free trade, democracy, and the rule of law while also supporting unsavory regimes and pursuing opportunistic trade policies. In recent years, the U.S. government has condemned other states for engaging in torture at the same time that its intelligence agencies were waterboarding detainees or shipping them off to be interrogated in countries whose security services are notorious for conducting torture. The Obama administration has reformed such policies but declined to prosecute the senior officials responsible for introducing them -- a failure that is especially striking when contrasted with the zeal with which the administration has pursued leakers such as Chelsea Manning.

Nor is U.S. hypocrisy limited to the issue of torture. Consider just a few more examples. The cables Manning obtained and that the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks released suggest that the Bush administration knew that civilian casualties in Iraq were higher than it ever acknowledged. And yet the administration dismissed the estimates of outside groups as inflated. Meanwhile, Snowden’s leaks revealed that the National Security Agency has worked in secret to weaken cryptographic standards that it claimed to be improving. In another vein, last year, an unnamed senior U.S. official admitted to Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post that the United States gives countries that cooperate on counterterrorism a “free pass” on human rights while trying to “ream” less pliant governments. So, for example, last July, when Egypt’s army toppled the country’s first freely elected government, the Obama administration did everything it could to avoid even acknowledging that a coup had taken place. As for the hypocrisies relating to U.S. trade and economic policy, these are too many to list and describe.

As our original essay showed, American condemnations of Chinese cyber-incursions hypocritically ignore Washington’s own attacks on Beijing’s computers. The United States has at times emphasized a distinction between “legitimate” incursions, aimed at military and political targets, and “illegitimate” ones, aimed at stealing commercial and technological secrets. But this distinction is unconvincing to those outside the small club of technologically advanced countries with an interest in protecting their intellectual property. Indeed, even the United States, when it was at an earlier stage of economic development, once had laws actively encouraging the pirating of foreign technology.


Cohen argues that other countries are hypocritical. We agree. American hypocrisy has not become more problematic because other governments are sincerely outraged by Washington’s behavior (although some foreign officials are genuinely shocked and unhappy). Rather, the real trouble is that the hypocrisies of the United States and those of other countries no longer reinforce each other. As we argued in our essay, countries that used to prefer to turn a blind eye to objectionable American behavior can now no longer ignore it. One case in point is Brazil’s reaction to the revelations of NSA spying on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff would likely have preferred to pretend that the spying had not happened, so that she could continue to build economic ties with Washington. But public anger at the revelations in Brazil led her to aggressively curtail relations and introduce legislation forbidding the export of Brazilians’ personal data overseas. This reaction is, of course, hypocritical. But Brazilian hypocrisy now cuts against U.S. hypocrisy rather than reinforcing it, by highlighting the contradiction between U.S. exhortations for a free and open Internet and its exploitation of that openness to compromise foreign computer systems.

European outrage at NSA spying is partly for show. European governments have their own spies and sometimes monitor their own citizens in intrusive ways. Yet the current outrage reflects genuine anger among citizens and is likely to have far-reaching consequences. Forthcoming European legislation will likely mandate harsh penalties for American firms that share the personal data of Europeans with the U.S. government, a restriction that will likely lead to a major transatlantic confrontation. U.S. President Barack Obama has described EU-U.S. electronic information-sharing arrangements as crucial to counterterrorism. Thanks to the scandal prompted by Snowden’s leaks, such arrangements are now threatened.

U.S. hegemony rests on military force and economic might as well as hypocrisy. Yet armies and money only go so far. Even the most powerful states need to persuade and exhort as well as impose. Over time, revelations of U.S. hypocrisy will tend to corrode this form of soft power. The United States will encounter increased resistance from allies, as advocates for civil liberties in other democracies decry American hypocrisy and stoke public outrage. Washington’s adversaries will use evidence of American hypocrisy as ammunition in their attacks on the U.S.-led liberal order. Finally, the decentralized international community that establishes the Internet’s technical standards will embrace stronger cryptography, which will make the NSA’s surveillance far more difficult and costly.

American hypocrisy has long remained unchallenged and deeply intertwined with U.S. foreign policy. This makes it nearly invisible to many members of the foreign policy elite, even ones as thoughtful as Cohen. One result is a good deal of inconsistency in the ways that U.S. officials have responded to the Manning and Snowden scandals, seeming to vacillate between denying that the leaks pose a major problem and harshly overreacting against those who have exposed the emperor’s nudity. Sooner or later, however, if the United States wants to remain able to convince others through the force of its legitimacy rather than just through threats or bribery, Washington must acknowledge the past importance of hypocrisy as well as its new limits.

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