It is a truth universally acknowledged that behaviour by others inconsistent with professed values is condemned as hypocrisy, but our own similar conduct is rationalised as perfectly understandable prioritisation of multiple competing goals. Speaking at Yale University in 2003, former US president Bill Clinton said: “We should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in when we are no longer the military, political, economic superpower in the world.” In his commencement address at West Point on 28 May, US President Barack Obama affirmed: “We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else… what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
They are right. The West is losing its ability to impose its will, policy preferences, values and double standards on the rest, who are demanding their rightful due in setting the standards, writing the rules and designing and controlling the institutions of global governance to ensure compliance. Westerners must readjust psychologically to their loss just as the new powers must accept the burdens of global leadership. The major western powers must step back from an addiction to foreign invasions, habitual interference in others’ internal affairs, and bullying as their default instinct when others espouse different values and refuse to kowtow to western dictates. As with national and global surveillance, Americans have fallen into the trap of interfering anywhere and everywhere not because it is right in principle or serves a coherent strategic purpose, but because they can, insensitive and indifferent to how threatening their actions are to others.
While Americans see their policy as springing from universal idealism, many others perceive it as rooted in sanctimonious arrogance. US government agencies have openly and proudly given large grants to foreign NGOs as part of an aggressive democracy promotion agenda. Much of this has gone into bolstering the capacity of civil society activists to act in defiance of government censorship and controls. This has two pernicious consequences. One, to the governments of China, Egypt and Russia, it is a hostile and confrontational policy of soft regime change. Even India’s Intelligence Bureau, in a confidential briefing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fingered several western-funded NGOs as anti-development activists on nuclear and coal-fired power plants, uranium mines, big industrial projects, hydroelectric plants and extractive industries. Two, the US commitment to the freedom principle rings hollow in light of the widely publicised stories of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Even former vice-president Al Gore remarked on 10 June that what Snowden “revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the US Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed”.
The disconnect between words and deeds leads the US into trouble abroad and produces foreign policy outcomes that can politely be described as an incoherent mess. The rhetoric and activism feed the fear of hostile US intentions while Washington’s deep risk aversion consolidates their contempt for US resolve. The era of post-Cold War unipolar ascendancy has passed. The US must either dial back its hostile criticisms, backed by threats of diplomatic censure and economic sanctions and hints of military force, of other countries’ departures from global norms and international law; or else it must bridge its own wide reality-rhetoric gap. Efforts to persist with the dissonance will make the world a more dangerous place for everyone and add to global cynicism about US hypocrisy.
Post-Cold War examples of US double standards
Consider four examples. In 1999, in violation of both international law and its own charter, NATO waged war against Serbia, which had not attacked any other country. In insisting that its actions did not set a precedent for other regional organisations, NATO implicitly also proclaimed itself as the final arbiter of military intervention by itself and every other coalition.
The 2003 Iraq War was an apt illustration of Bismarck’s bon mot that “A preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death”. Iraq had not attacked any other country and had no connection to those who planned and executed the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US. Washington waged war not because it had to, but because it wanted to and could. The weapons of mass destruction claim was a marketing gimmick for reaching policy consensus inside Washington.
The drone strikes by the US in the Afghanistan-Pakistan badlands and Yemen violate international law, humanitarian law, human rights law, and possibly also the US Constitution. Their legality has been sharply questioned by several UN Special Rapporteurs and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They set a dangerous precedent for other governments and future US administrations in the international use of lethal violence by States as newer war technologies are developed.
Last July, the military deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after mass demonstrations against him. US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “restoring democracy”. When the Thai military took power through a coup last month, also after sustained mass demonstrations and political instability, the US reacted with criticism and suspended all military assistance until political detainees are released and fresh elections held. In Ukraine, the West supported street mobs to oust the elected pro-Russian president and install a pro-western government instead.
While the G7 represents the world’s wealthy club of fading powers, the BRICS brings together the rising new powers. Over the past six months, Washington has picked quarrels with the three leading BRICS, demanding they adhere to norms it does not accept for itself. In purchasing power parity dollars, China’s economy is on the verge of surpassing the US. In addition, China skillfully exploited US entrapment in Iraq and Afghanistan and collapse of US reputation for moral and financial leadership, to expand its soft power reach and influence. Global public opinion surveys show most people believe China will inevitably replace America as the leading world power. But neither the US (58 percent) nor China (63 percent) is held to consider other countries’ interests.
On 19 May, US Attorney General Eric Holder said a Grand Jury had laid cyber-espionage charges against five Chinese army officers. China strongly denounced the charges: “The US’ deceitful nature and its practice of double standards when it comes to cyber security have long been exposed, from the WikiLeaks incident to the Edward Snowden affair.” Washington has been revealed to be doing exactly what it vocally accused Beijing of doing: embedding malware and surveillance technology in hardware before it is sold to customers around the world.
Last year, Manila took Beijing to international arbitration over their maritime dispute. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the US Institute of Peace comments: “China has essentially studied how the US has conducted its hegemony, and they are saying, ‘We have to respect some court case?’ They say that the United States blatantly violates international law when it is in its interest. China sees this as what first-class powers do.” At West Point, Obama acknowledged, “We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our Senate.”
India’s deputy consul-general in New York was arrested and strip-searched last December for alleged violations of US visa and labour laws. Even a cursory reading shows the US violated the Vienna Convention on consular relations. The US muscularly shields its diplomats abroad, even when they kill, as with Joshua Walde in Kenya last August and Raymond Davis in Lahore in 2011. Kerry, then a senator, went to Pakistan to appease its anger and said: “This case does not belong in the court” because Davis “has diplomatic immunity”. President Obama insisted on diplomatic immunity for Davis but stayed studiously silent on Devyani Khobragade, as did now-Secretary of State Kerry. Nor did Kerry explain why US law trumps Indian judicial process, which was already seized of the dispute between the diplomat and her maid.
This was preceded by the absurdity of the visa denial to Modi, the only person ever to have been placed on the prohibited watch-list of someone promoting religious intolerance. It is difficult to see how Gujarat under Modi betrayed a higher level of religious intolerance than Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has been honoured in Washington by two presidents — the same who kept Modi out.
In Ukraine, the West has treated Russia with disdain born of victor’s arrogance. President Vladimir Putin had watched helplessly as Russia was looted by oligarchs abetted by US crony capitalists, millions of ethnic Russians were abandoned and relegated to second-class status in former Soviet republics, NATO moved in to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Russian troops from central and eastern Europe, and Russian voice, vote and interests were brushed aside in detaching Kosovo from Serbia.
In his recent remarks at West Point, Obama insisted the US “will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it”. If this is acceptable for the US, then how is the Russian annexation of contiguous Crimea — a core Russian interest — less justified than the US use of force in Kosovo in 1999 or Iraq in 2003, half a world away? Thus Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Attempts by those who staged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia to question the free will of Crimeans cannot be viewed as anything but a flagrant display of double standards.” Speaking in the Kremlin on 18 March, Putin said: “We remember 1999 very well… This is not even double standards; this is blunt cynicism.” The annexation of Crimea may lack legal and moral justification. Given the deep and intertwined historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties and geopolitical interests centred on the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquartered at Sevastopol, the loss of Crimea would have been a strategic catastrophe. NATO would have been just 400 km from Moscow, positioned to cut off Russia from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and squeeze it out of the Caucasus.
At and after their meeting in Brussels this month, the G7 demanded Putin recognise the legitimacy of, and work with, Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko, on threat of further sanctions if Russian provocations continue in eastern Ukraine. Are the G7 leaders really so blind to the double standards and hypocrisy of their statements and actions? Or are they so brazen because they simply do not care about “the decent opinion of mankind” in the rest of the world? For to the rest, the import of the G7 common position is the same as the implicit assumption on which the invasion of Iraq was predicated: the US-led West has a divine right to choose who shall be the ruler of which foreign lands, by which means of installation and toppling, and until when. If we the West support or orchestrate a street movement to bring down an elected president (Viktor Yanukovych), do not complain. If you organise a referendum, we are not obliged to respect its validity as process or outcome. When our choice wins an election, you must accept that. Disrespect any of these commandments and we will make you pay for your lack of respect through economic sanctions and military strikes.
Newsflash: The financial and military capacity to continue with the above policy has eroded. The longer it is retained, the greater will be the reputational and material damage to the West. If you throw your weight around, the risk of self-harm grows as your weight reduces and others’ increases. In all three cases, the US held others to standards of domestic or international law that it demonstrably ignores or violates itself, and tried to impose costs for their transgressions that it has itself refused to pay. For instance, the US, like any other country, can demand subordination of international to domestic law, or vice versa, for foreign diplomats resident in the US and American diplomats based abroad. Either position is respectable and defensible despite compromising the quality of the superseded law. What is indefensible is the hypocrisy of splitting it so that US will prevails in both cases.
Previously, unchallengeable primacy had enabled Washington to brush aside criticisms of double standards. This is going to become progressively more difficult as US primacy is increasingly contested by the rising powers. In all three cases, the country concerned has pushed back. In all, there was a serious imbalance between the core interests of the other country and US interests. In the case of China and Russia, when added to contiguity, these made their threats of using force if necessary credible. In both instances, the military imbalance is such that the US would ultimately prevail in any outright war, but because of the incidental interests, the gains of victory would not compensate for the heavy price paid. In the Indian case, the diplomat is back in New Delhi and still in the foreign service but the diplomatic privileges given to US officials in India have been scaled back permanently to reciprocate strictly the conditions of Indian officials in the US. There are costs also, of course, for the other three countries, which they believe worth paying for the core interests defended. The net result is that the aftermath of the pushback lingers as the new normal even as the particular crisis blows over.