Why Strategic Hypocrisy is Collapsing, and Why We’ll Miss It

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a conservative who served as lead author of the Patriot Act, has co-sponsored the USA Freedom Act, which aims to limit the government’s ability to collect information on the phone records and electronic information of Americans who aren’t part of an authorized investigation. Sensenbrenner is joined by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, and the legislation draws on earlier proposals from Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Michigan Rep. Justin Amash as well as Democrats like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

Though it remains to be seen if the USA Freedom Act will become law, it’s interesting to wonder if it would have gotten any traction at all in the absence of recent leaks of sensitive national security information. Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have a new Foreign Affairs essay (“The End of Hypocrisy”) on how recent disclosures about U.S. spying programs might impact U.S. foreign policy. Their basic thesis is that as secrets get harder and harder to keep (because hundreds of thousands of people have access to potentially embarrassing state secrets, and even the harshest punishments won’t deter the most determined individuals from leaking them), the U.S. policymakers will have to close the gap between their rhetoric and their actual behavior. Farrell and Finnemore use U.S. cybersecurity policy as an example:

To see how this dynamic will play out, consider the implications of Snowden’s revelations for U.S. cybersecurity policy. 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.

But the United States has been surreptitiously waging its own major offensive against China’s 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 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. 

Although prior to Snowden’s 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 Beijing’s logic changed after Snowden’s 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.

As the authors acknowledge, one can make a distinction between Chinese government hacking, which is often aimed at stealing commercial secrets, and U.S. government hacking, which focuses on military and other security-related targets. But of course non-Americans might not find this distinction particularly interesting or important.

So this “dramatic narrowing of the country’s room to maneuver between its stated aspirations and its sometimes sordid pursuit of self-interest” means that U.S. can either more forthrightly assert its right to pursue its self-interest, as the Chinese and the Russians are known to do, or it can make an effort to adhere to higher standards. Farrell and Finnemore might be too sanguine about this latter path — they don’t give due regard to its potential costs. Yet they are right to suggest that the former path carries risks of its own:

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.

Some will celebrate what Farrell and Finnemore call the “accelerating hypocrisy collapse” and others will lament it. I’m in the latter camp, as I tend to think that while the U.S. often behaves hypocritically, it does so to better ends than its hypocritical counterparts elsewhere in the world. Regardless, the end of hypocrisy is a reality — an expensive reality — to which we’ll have to adapt.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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