25 October 2013
End Hypocrisy with Leaks
Foreign Affairs, November-December 2013
The End of Hypocrisy
American Foreign Policy in the Age of Leaks
By Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore
From our November/December 2013 Issue
The U.S. government seems outraged that people are leaking classified materials
about its less attractive behavior. It certainly acts that way: three years
ago, after Chelsea Manning, an army private then known as Bradley Manning,
turned over hundreds of thousands of classified cables to the anti-secrecy
group WikiLeaks, U.S. authorities imprisoned the soldier under conditions
that the UN special rapporteur on torture deemed cruel and inhumane. The
Senates top Republican, Mitch McConnell, appearing on Meet the Press
shortly thereafter, called WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, a
More recently, following the disclosures about U.S. spying programs by Edward
Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst, U.S. officials spent
a great deal of diplomatic capital trying to convince other countries to
deny Snowden refuge. And U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a long-anticipated
summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he refused to comply.
Despite such efforts, however, the U.S. establishment has often struggled
to explain exactly why these leakers pose such an enormous threat. Indeed,
nothing in the Manning and Snowden leaks should have shocked those who were
paying attention. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who dissented from
the WikiLeaks panic, suggested as much when he told reporters in 2010 that
the leaked information had had only a fairly modest impact and
had not compromised intelligence sources or methods. Snowden has most certainly
compromised sources and methods, but he has revealed nothing that was really
unexpected. Before his disclosures, most experts already assumed that the
United States conducted cyberattacks against China, bugged European institutions,
and monitored global Internet communications. Even his most explosive revelation
-- that the United States and the United Kingdom have compromised key
communications software and encryption systems designed to protect online
privacy and security -- merely confirmed what knowledgeable observers have
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
Washingtons 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 governments public
rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook
Washingtons covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify
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.
A HYPOCRITICAL HEGEMON
Hypocrisy is central to Washingtons soft power -- its ability to get
other countries to accept the legitimacy of its actions -- yet few Americans
appreciate its role. Liberals tend to believe that other countries cooperate
with the United States because American ideals are attractive and the U.S.-led
international system is fair. Realists may be more cynical, yet if they think
about Washingtons hypocrisy at all, they consider it irrelevant. For
them, it is Washingtons cold, hard power, not its ideals, that encourages
other countries to partner with the United States.
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. Thats 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.
Of course, the United States has gotten away with hypocrisy for some time
now. It has long preached the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation, for example,
and has coerced some states into abandoning their atomic ambitions. At the
same time, it tacitly accepted Israels nuclearization and, in 2004,
signed a formal deal affirming Indias right to civilian nuclear energy
despite its having flouted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by acquiring
nuclear weapons. In a similar vein, Washington talks a good game on democracy,
yet it stood by as the Egyptian military overthrew an elected government
in July, refusing to call a coup a coup. Then theres the war
on terror: Washington pushes foreign governments hard on human rights
but claims sweeping exceptions for its own behavior when it feels its safety
The reason the United States has until now suffered few consequences for
such hypocrisy is that other states have a strong interest in turning a blind
eye. 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.
The ease with which the United States has been able to act inconsistently
has bred complacency among its leaders. Since few countries ever point out
the nakedness of U.S. hypocrisy, and since those that do can usually be ignored,
American politicians have become desensitized to their countrys double
standards. But thanks to Manning and Snowden, such double standards are getting
harder and harder to ignore.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
To see how this dynamic will play out, consider the implications of
Snowdens revelations for U.S. cybersecurity policy. Until very recently,
U.S. officials did not talk about their countrys offensive capabilities
in cyberspace, instead emphasizing their strategies to defend against foreign
attacks. At the same time, they have made increasingly direct warnings about
Chinese hacking, detailing the threat to U.S. computer networks and the potential
damage to U.S.-Chinese relations.
But the United States has been surreptitiously waging its own major offensive
against Chinas computers -- and those of other adversaries -- for some
time now. The U.S. government has quietly poured billions of dollars into
developing offensive, as well as defensive, capacities in cyberspace. (Indeed,
the two are often interchangeable -- programmers who are good at crafting
defenses for their own systems know how to penetrate other peoples
computers, too.) And Snowden confirmed that the U.S. military has hacked
not only the Chinese militarys computers but also those belonging to
Chinese cell-phone companies and the countrys most prestigious university.
Although prior to Snowdens disclosures, many experts were aware --
or at least reasonably certain -- that the U.S. government was involved in
hacking against China, Washington was able to maintain official deniability.
Protected from major criticism, U.S. officials were planning a major public
relations campaign to pressure China into tamping down its illicit activities
in cyberspace, starting with threats and perhaps culminating in legal indictments
of Chinese hackers. Chinese officials, although well aware that the Americans
were acting hypocritically, avoided calling them out directly in order to
prevent further damage to the relationship.
But Beijings logic changed after Snowdens leaks. China suddenly
had every reason to push back publicly against U.S. hypocrisy. After all,
Washington could hardly take umbrage with Beijing for calling out U.S. behavior
confirmed by official U.S. documents. Indeed, the disclosures left China
with little choice but to respond publicly. If it did not point out U.S.
hypocrisy, its reticence would be interpreted as weakness. At a news conference
after the revelations, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National
Defense insisted that the scandal reveal[ed] the true face and hypocritical
conduct regarding Internet security of the United States.
The United States has found itself flatfooted. It may attempt, as the former
head of U.S. counterintelligence Joel Brenner has urged, to draw distinctions
between Chinas allegedly unacceptable hacking, aimed at stealing commercial
secrets, and its own perfectly legitimate hacking of military or other
security-related targets. But those distinctions will likely fall on deaf
ears. Washington has been forced to abandon its naming-and-shaming campaign
against Chinese hacking.
Mannings and Snowdens 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 cell-phone 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 countrys 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.
SUIT THE ACTION TO THE WORD, THE WORD TO THE ACTION
The collapse of hypocrisy presents the United States with uncomfortable choices.
One way or another, its policy and its rhetoric will have to move closer
to each other.
The easiest course for the U.S. government to take would be to forgo hypocritical
rhetoric altogether and acknowledge the narrowly self-interested goals of
many of its actions. Leaks would be much less embarrassing -- and less damaging
-- if they only confirmed what Washington had already stated its policies
to be. Indeed, the United States could take a page out of Chinas and
Russias playbooks: instead of framing their behavior in terms of the
common good, those countries decry anything that they see as infringing on
their national sovereignty and assert their prerogative to pursue their interests
at will. Washington could do the same, while continuing to punish leakers
with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that might give them
The problem with this course, however, is that U.S. national interests are
inextricably bound up with a global system of multilateral ties and relative
openness. Washington has already undermined its commitment to liberalism
by suggesting that it will retaliate economically against countries that
offer safe haven to leakers. If the United States abandoned the rhetoric
of mutual good, it would signal to the world that it was no longer committed
to the order it leads. As other countries followed its example and retreated
to the defense of naked self-interest, the bonds of trade and cooperation
that Washington has spent decades building could unravel. The United States
would not prosper in a world where everyone thought about international
cooperation in the way that Putin does.
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 countrys 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.
Secrecy can be defended as a policy in a democracy. Blatant hypocrisy is
a tougher sell. Voters accept that they cannot know everything that their
government does, but they do not like being lied to. If the United States
is to reduce its dangerous dependence on doublespeak, it will have to submit
to real oversight and an open democratic debate about its policies. The era
of easy hypocrisy is over.