from Foreign Affairs Issue - November-December 2013
25 October 2013
from Cryptome Website
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 Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell,
appearing on Meet the Press shortly thereafter, called WikiLeaks' founder,
Julian Assange, "a high-tech terrorist."
And U.S. President Barack Obama canceled
a long-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin when
he refused to comply.
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 cyber-attacks 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 long
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.
Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity:
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.
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 Washington's hypocrisy at all, they consider it irrelevant.
For them, it is Washington's cold, hard power,
not its ideals, that encourages other countries to partner with the United
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.
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.
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.
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 country's double standards.
But thanks to Manning and Snowden,
such double standards are getting harder and harder to ignore.
Until very recently, U.S. officials did not talk about their country's 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.
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 people's computers, too.)
And Snowden confirmed that the U.S. military has
hacked not only the Chinese military's computers but also those belonging to
Chinese cell-phone companies and the country's most prestigious university.
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.
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,
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 China's 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.
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 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.
Indeed, the United States could take a page out of China's and Russia's playbooks:
Washington could do the same, while continuing
to punish leakers with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that
might give them refuge.
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
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.
current administration has curtailed some of the abuses
its predecessors, it still has a long way to go.
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.