The Agenda

The Hypocrisy Card as Asymmetrical Weapon

The recent revelation that Brazil — which has condemned the United States for spying on its top officials — spies on diplomatic targets from the U.S. and other countries is kind of amusing. But it raises an interesting set of questions. Simon Romero reports:

The statement [from Brazil’s Institutional Security Cabinet] came in response to a report in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo describing how the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, commonly known as Abin, had followed some diplomats from Russia and Iran by foot and by car, photographing their movements, while also monitoring a commercial property leased by the United States Embassy in Brasília, the capital.

By almost any measure, such modest operations stand in sharp contrast to the sweeping international eavesdropping operations carried out by the National Security Agency. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, recently postponed a state visit to Washington following revelations that the N.S.A. had spied on her and the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.

“It’s kind of basic stuff when you think about it,” said Fernando Sampaio, 70, Russia’s honorary consul in the southern city of Porto Alegre and one of the targets of Brazil’s spying program, according to the newspaper report, which was based on an Abin document. “Governments spy, what a surprise,” Mr. Sampaio, a lawyer who has long worked to open Russian markets for Brazilian beef exports, said by telephone. “I’ve long suspected that my phone line was tapped, and it probably still is,” he added.

The fact that Abin is engaged in “basic stuff,” as opposed to the sophisticated surveillance conducted by the NSA, presumably reflects differences in the resources Brazil and the United States can bring to bear. Yet Brazil’s accusations of hypocrisy against the U.S. are a kind of asymmetrical weapon designed to blunt America’s edge in resources. Talk is cheap; cutting-edge signals intelligence is not. Moreover, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore explain in “The End of Hypocrisy,” accusations of hypocrisy hurt the U.S. more than they hurt other countries, including other democracies:

[T]he United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s 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. 

What I wonder about is whether the Brazilian government has a coherent endgame. While some countries, like Brazil, can be understood as “friendly challengers,” which profit from operating within the U.S.-led order, yet which are rhetorically committed to a multipolar order in which power is more evenly distributed across countries, others, like Singapore, Britain, Canada, Australia, South Korea, and Japan, seem more attuned to the vulnerability of the U.S.-led world order, and they are thus more inclined to want to shore it up in various ways, whether by (reluctantly) committing resources to politically costly U.S.-led multilateral endeavors or urging the U.S. to play a more assertive role in the Western Pacific, etc. Does Brazil’s Rousseff administration really think that Brazil would benefit from a more multipolar order, or are they shortsightedly seeking to capitalize on domestic nationalist sentiment to achieve short-run political gains? My guess is that if President Rousseff failed to capitalize on the NSA revelations, one of her political rivals, like the leftist Marina Silva (who has recently joined forces with the popular Socialist governor of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos), would have happily done so. Given the parlous state of the Brazilian economy, Rousseff and her allies had little choice but to punch the U.S. in the nose.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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