It is a truth universally acknowledged that behavior by others inconsistent with social norms is condemned as hypocrisy but similar discrepancies in our own conduct is rationalized as understandable prioritization in the face of multiple goals. When the military deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “restoring democracy.” When the Thai military took power through a coup last month, the United States suspended all military assistance. In Ukraine the West supported street mobs who ousted the elected pro-Russian president and installed a pro-Western government instead.
While the Group of Seven represents the world’s wealthy club of fading powers, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) groups together the rising new powers. At and after their recent meeting in Brussels, the G-7 leaders ordered Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize and work with Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko, or face further sanctions.
Are they really so blind to their double standards and hypocrisy? Or so brazen because they simply do not care about “the decent opinion of mankind” in the rest of the world? The U.S.-led West has no divine right to choose who shall be the ruler of which foreign lands, by which means of installation and toppling, and for how long.
News flash: The financial and military capacity to continue with this policy has eroded. Yet over the last year Washington has picked quarrels with the three leading BRICS based in double standards. In 2003, after leaving office, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said: “We should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world.”
In his commencement address at West Point on May 28, U.S. President Barack Obama affirmed: “We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else.”
While most Americans see their policy as springing from universal idealism, others perceive it as rooted in sanctimonious arrogance. The era of U.S. unipolar ascendancy after the end of the Cold War tempted Washington to adopt and allowed it to get away with such dissonant policies. That era has passed. The U.S. must either dial back its hostile criticisms — backed by threats of diplomatic censure, economic sanctions and military force — of other countries’ departures from global norms and international law. Or it must bridge its own wide reality-rhetoric gap.
The 2003 Iraq War was an apt illustration of 19th century German statesman Otto von 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 the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Washington waged war not because it had to, but because it wanted to and could.
U.S. drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan badlands and Yemen violate international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and even U.S. constitutional law. Their legality has been sharply questioned by several U.N. special rapporteurs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On May 19, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that a grand jury had laid cyber-espionage charges against five Chinese Army officers. China strongly denounced the charges: “The U.S.’ 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 has vocally accused Beijing of doing: embedding malware and surveillance technology in hardware before it is sold to customers around the world.
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 United States Senate.” He is right. China has carefully studied U.S. hegemonic conduct, concluded that Washington disdainfully ignores international law as a constraint, and believes China has the same right as a “first-class power” on the make in its disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
India’s female deputy consul-general in New York was arrested and strip-searched last December for alleged violations of U.S. visa and labor laws. Even a cursory reading shows the U.S. violated the Vienna convention on consular relations. It muscularly shields U.S. diplomats abroad, even when they kill, as with Joshua Walde in Kenya last August and Raymond Davis in Lahore in 2011. Then-Sen. John Kerry went to Pakistan to appease its anger and said: “this case does not belong in the court” because Davis “has diplomatic immunity.” As secretary of state he kept studiously silent on the Indian diplomat nor explain why U.S. 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 Narendra 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 was more intolerant of minority religions than Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been honored in Washington by two presidents — the same two that kept Modi out.
In Ukraine, the West has treated Russia with disdain born of victor’s arrogance. On May 28, Obama insisted the U.S. “will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” If this is acceptable for the U.S., why is the Russian annexation of contiguous Crimea — a core Russian interest — less justified than the U.S. use of force in Kosovo in 1999 or Iraq in 2003, half a world away?
The annexation of Crimea may not be justifiable legally or morally. But given the deep and intertwined historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties and geopolitical interests, the loss of Crimea would have been a strategic catastrophe for Russia. 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. On March 18, President Vladimir Putin said: “We remember 1999 very well,” adding: “This is not even double standards; this is blunt cynicism.”
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 U.S. material and normative interests. In the case of China and Russia, when added to contiguity, these made the threats of using force if necessary credible. In both instances, the military imbalance is such that the U.S. would ultimately prevail in any outright war. Because of the incidental interests, however, the gains of victory would not compensate for the price paid.
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.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University