Every once in awhile, a subject comes along and just sort of hijacks your thoughts completely. As Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) famously stated in Inception, and ratified by my recent experience, the most resilient parasite is an idea.
And this idea is the criticism of American foreign policy as “hypocritical.” Two things drive me to dive back in, one more time, to the subject: one, I’ve been emailing around the horn with some friends about it this past week, and second, the receipt of a well-reasoned reply to the original post. And, I have to add a third: my first point wasn’t well written or clarified. The opinion was in the raw, and over this past week has tightened up a bit (which isn’t to say it’s perfect, by any stretch!).
I’ll start with blueandgold’s point about the last post:
What most people mean, I think, by ‘hypocritical’ is that they hear the rhetoric that some (and not all) politicians or other important mouthpieces expound some (and not all) of the time and actually believe it. The criticism only comes because of the wealth of possibilities the US represents and the naivety of believing all you hear. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but the hopes of the world, in many ways, are placed on the shoulders of the United States, as fair as that is or not.
Just how corporations spend a pretty penny on crafting the brand to be something more, the ‘experience’ of the brand, to use the marketing-speak, the criticism of hypocrisy is often misdirected. It is instead a form of cognitive dissonance: the criticism is with the potential the US represents, not the actual conduct of the state.
One other, persuasive point about blueandgold’s reasoning had to do with my interpretation of the criticism. “Hypocrisy,” and the words connotation – it’s a loaded term. Perhaps the better operating word to discuss would be “inconsistency” – between US expressed values/interests and “potential the US represents” and “the actual conduct of the state.” So, inconsistency in what the US says and what the US does.
I think the most useful starting point to analyze a charge of US “inconsistency” would be with American values and interests, or, the “ends” sought by US policy. What does the US want to accomplish with what it says and does?
These can be found with regularity in various National Security Strategies and policy documents:
1. Security (defense of homeland, forward stationed forces, Allies)
2. Values (liberal, market based, democratic, republican form of government, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, Bill of Rights, rule of law, etc.)
3. Prosperity (articulated well in FDR’s 4 Freedoms…”and the pursuit of happiness,” generally manifested in protection of national economic interests)
4. Order (maintenance of regional and global order – we’re on top, so status quo suits us just fine. This one clearly bumps up against “values” all the time, and provides much of the challenges we’ve been writing about).
These four values and interests form the ends of US policy, and have not changed in quite some time. As they are what the US seeks to accomplish in the world, generally speaking, they are what the US communicates (or, says) to the world. And like it or not, forms an expectancy in the minds of people abroad.
Now, for some lessons to be teased out:
1. Central challenge is balancing Values (#2) with Order (#4).
Clearly this is a tightrope that the US has been dancing for quite some time. As mentioned before, apartheid in South Africa, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and China…in every situation, one will hold sway over the other, depending on the situation and the current government’s interpretation.
2. Representative government guarantees minor fluctuation and variance.
Outside of an existential threat, there will always be, to some degree, difference in the relative value of values and interests, and therefore interpretation of policy ends. That said, the exigencies of the situation often dictate a fairly necessary policy course – i.e. President Obama’s general continuance of President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan (despite earlier candidate statements).
3. The US cannot do everything; choosing not to pursue a particular stated end is a valid policy option.It is always an option to do nothing, in any scenario. In some ways, doing nothing can do more to accomplish stated values and interests than action. Again, that’s a tough judgment call. Also, blueandgold provided a couple of excellent quotations from Samuel Johnson on this point.
All these discrepancies have to do with the ways and means the US employs to accomplish it’s stated ends (which are, as demonstrated above, consistent). This is the reason why, initially, I used the term “insufficiency” to describe the inconsistency claim. To state that the US is inconsistent in its ways and means is to make no charge at all: it is the prudent state that employs different options in the face of limited resources and unique situations. It is also realistic in the sense that it acknowledges the hard choices (#1), domestic governmental institutions (#2), and constraints (#3) inherent in all statecraft. These seem to apply to nearly all governments, more or less.
I appreciate the friends that have prodded this discussion forward, and blueandgold’s post – they’ve helped me work out a reasonably-well formed opinion on the matter (as opposed to my usual half-cocked approach!).