Hypocrisy Is Not a Real Problem in World Politics


There’s a now-famous exchange from Norm MacDonald’s appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which the two discuss the then-recent sexual assault charges against Bill Cosby.

Norm: [Another comedian] told me, “I think the worst part of the Cosby thing was the hypocrisy.” And I disagreed.

Jerry: You disagreed with that?

Norm: Yeah, I thought it was the raping.

It’s one of those jokes in which the import seems obvious in retrospect. I think of this exchange often during contemporary discussions of world politics, in which hypocrisy is treated as some kind of cardinal sin — sometimes even to the exclusion of more serious crimes.

This is, after all, an arena that features war, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, punishing economic sanctions, territorial grabs, and more. To emphasize hypocrisy feels like missing the point with a vengeance. And yet it keeps coming up. Most recently, American attempts to support opposition against Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, along with its support of Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks, have raised accusations of hypocritical conduct from a variety of sources.

Somewhat amusingly, other powers like China have begun to take this same line. Of course, this is hardly new — such accusations were a staple of Soviet rhetoric during the Cold War. Nor is the United States a unique target, historically speaking. The British were notorious for what George Orwell called their “world-famed hypocrisy,” particularly where their empire was concerned.

A recurring theme of these charges is not just that hypocrisy is undesirable on its own terms, but that to engage in it is somehow bad or dangerous to a state’s international position. This is a claim so often assumed that it has by now become an article of faith. Whether it has been proven is another question.



Almost everyone has had personal experience with hypocrisy — both displaying and observing it — but it appears to be especially acute in the domain of international politics. In a much-cited work, Stephen Krasner described the sovereign state system itself as one of “organized hypocrisy,” meaning that it rests upon certain fictions of authority and control that fall short of the reality.

In her famous work, Ordinary Vices, political theorist Judith Shklar takes up the theme of hypocrisy at some length, noting:

No occasion reveals the incoherence of our public values more than war… That is why war is psychologically and morally so revealing, as all readers of Thucydides know. In our age it is also the occasion on which charges of hypocrisy may be exchanged with unmatched virulence.

Clearly, there is something here, but why and how does it matter? First, it must be said that pointing out hypocrisy is easy — especially when it involves the other guy. As Shklar also remarks, “It is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong.” There’s a reason, after all, that tu quoque is considered a fallacy. This rhetorical habit has extended itself into the geopolitical sphere, where identifying instances of hypocrisy on the part of foreign governments, however trivial, has become a kind of parlor game for public commentators — particularly where they already bear some antipathy toward the state or leader in question.

Beyond its rhetorical value, however, accusations of hypocrisy do seem to derive from certain intuitions about justice and injustice — much the same way we find ourselves offended by instances of hypocrisy in daily life. Hedley Bull referred to this logic as the “domestic analogy,” in which states in the international system are akin to individuals in society. The trouble here is that in liberal democracies we take for granted the basic equality of persons. That concept of equality forms the bedrock principle of rule of law, ensuring that the poorest and weakest do not lose their due protections and the wealthiest and strongest do not assert undue prerogatives. But states are simply very different entities. Just compare the global interests and obligations of the United States with those of, say, Belgium.

Something similar goes for sanctioning behavior on the part of our allies that we would be loath to countenance among enemies or rivals. This sort of unequal treatment under the law is at best corrupt and nepotistic and at worst a miscarriage of justice when practiced at home — for it flouts the rule of law that we mutually rely upon. But in the world of international politics, states do have larger interests and goals that they can pursue in concert with allied countries, and it hardly serves them to spite those interests for the sake of some abstract notion of equality among states — particularly when it is doubtful that rival states enjoy any commitment to that principle in the first place. (This of course says nothing about the wisdom of any particular policy, or even the wisdom of maintaining an allied or client relationship with a given country at all, but that has no bearing on the underlying logic here.)

Another problem with attributing such significance to hypocrisy is that it posits a kind of imaginary audience for one’s actions comprised of members who are not themselves also actors on the international stage. If there is such an audience, who might it be? Many argue that the answer is the countries that comprise the so-called “Global South.” Trita Parsi and Branko Marcetic provide an exhaustive rundown of instances in which the perceived hypocrisy of the United States is mooted as a reason to abstain from joining its support of Ukraine’s defense against Russia. But beyond highly public rhetoric, there is little evidence that anger over U.S. hypocrisy was a decisive factor in their calculations, or why it would override any consideration of material interests at stake.

One is left pondering the rather implausible counterfactual of a perfectly sincere great power whose commitment to principle commands loyalty among distant states irrespective of their own several interests. Indeed, there is a kind of condescension at work in these discussions, as though the countries of the Global South were not capable of operating from the logic of interests in their own right. And at a minimum, it seems to presuppose that such countries are not themselves capable of displaying hypocrisy. After all, the “non-aligned nations” during the Cold War (many of which now comprise the Global South) were particular offenders — for example, decrying the invasion of Egypt by the British-French-Israeli coalition but remaining virtually silent about the Soviet Union’s concurrent invasion of Hungary.

Meanwhile, there are still many who suppose that international organizations might offer an alternative to the dirty business of geopolitics. This is a long-standing liberal position, which holds that formal institutions, with their embedded norms of cooperation, can replace the calculations of power politics with more pacific modes of managing global security. This view, however, overlooks how such institutions are hardly immune to the interplay of power and interest. Just consider the list of members of the U.N. Human Rights Council over the years, which is long and distinguished primarily by irony.

Perhaps the most well-known attempt to justify hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy was Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s landmark essay, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” which was widely viewed as establishing much of the logic of policymaking under the subsequent Reagan administrations, in which the United States would favor friendly (typically anti-communist) non-democracies over unfriendly ones. Kirkpatrick in fact justified these policies by emphasizing their continuity with conventional practice:

Inconsistencies are a familiar part of politics in human society. Usually, however, governments behave hypocritically when their principles conflict with the national interest. What makes the inconsistencies of the Carter administration noteworthy are, first, the administration’s moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; and, second, the administration’s predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States. The administration’s conception of national interest borders on doublethink: it finds friendly powers to be guilty representatives of the status quo and views the triumph of unfriendly groups as beneficial to America’s “true interests.”

In other words, some form of inconsistency with respect to principles was built in to geopolitics, and Kirkpatrick was arguing that if the United States was going to display inconsistency anyway, they might as well do so in ways that, as Polemarchus put it in The Republic, benefits friends and harms enemies.

Now it must be said that much of America’s support during that period both for right-wing anti-communist insurgents and for authoritarian regimes (El Salvador comes to mind) looks highly questionable in retrospect. But here too, the central problem wasn’t hypocrisy per se, but that the United States provided diplomatic and material aid to some very nasty people, thus making itself complicit in their crimes without deriving much obvious benefit in many cases. The central problem then was strategic miscalculation: overestimating both the dynamism of Soviet-backed communism and the geostrategic importance of regions like Central America.

Now, it may be that hypocrisy is just a particular problem for great powers — especially the great power. Martha Finnemore makes just this point in a thoughtful article on the matter. She readily accepts that hypocrisy “pervades international politics.” But while this may not be a problem in itself, she argues that it may be a specific problem for a unipolar or hegemonic power that relies upon remaining legitimate in the eyes of other states to maintain its status. Hence the judicious application of hypocrisy can be useful, but when unrestrained, it “undermines respect and deference for the unipole and for the values on which it has legitimized its power.”

This claim, like our general sense that hypocrisy matters, is intuitively plausible, but Finnemore does not actually demonstrate what the costs are for hypocritical behavior or how these are traced to perceptions of hypocrisy by other states. Moreover, legitimacy is a notoriously elusive concept. It is assumed, it seems, that hypocrisy must ultimately blow back on the one who displays it — e.g., America’s global authority is somehow irreparably damaged in the eyes of those who can plainly see the distance between its rhetoric on behalf of the liberal international order and its actions. It is never quite clear, however, how this cashes out.

In this way, hypocrisy is not unlike that other bugbear of international politics: credibility. The loss of credibility is intuitively thought dangerous to a nation’s security. The operating assumption here is that a given state’s past behavior may invite future threats. But as Daryl Press has persuasively argued, states are far more likely to base their decisions on a combination of their own interests and their assessment of their adversaries’ material capabilities, than on an evaluation of past actions. Thus, whatever impact past hypocrisy may have on a given state’s credibility, it likely matters less than people presume for present and future dealings with other countries.

Now, it should be noted that Press’ argument is not above criticism, both because states are not purely rational utility maximizers and because, in the absence of certain knowledge of others’ intentions, states are bound to at least consider their past actions in determining the best policy.

But here is the larger problem: As with credibility, there is that same implicit analogy to interpersonal relations. We would, after all, not put our trust in someone who repeatedly failed to honor their word, nor would we much like someone who displayed blatant hypocrisy in their day-to-day behavior. But arguments about the risks of hypocrisy in world politics should ultimately issue in material conclusions. That is to say, the social externalities of being viewed as a hypocritical actor ought to eventually involve material costs to a state’s economic and security interests — much in the way that a private individual with a reputation for hypocrisy might lose out on job promotions or business opportunities.

The causal relationship between a state’s hypocrisy and material damage to its international position has been more assumed than argued. However plausible, it has not really been demonstrated in any empirical or quantifiable way (and it is striking how many of the relevant discussions rely upon predictive rather than retrodictive arguments).

In the absence of a clear understanding of those material costs, observers tend to fall back on what amount to rhetorical critiques. To take a recent example, Secretary of State Tony Blinken claimed in an interview, “Our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down. It is to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to.” This led to inevitable criticism by members of the smart set, to the effect that the United States has always made its own rules, and that it was historically absurd to equate supremacy with international rule of law. This is to treat global politics like an academic seminar, in which students are exposed for their shaky knowledge. Blinken, however, is not a student but a diplomat making a public statement. What really matters is whether putting it this way is useful or not. Of course, it might not be. But one likely can’t go around saying bluntly that U.S. policy is to hold China down at all costs. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine the critics in this instance preferring such a bald statement of primacy.

To return then to the examples raised at the outset, was it hypocritical of Washington to lend rhetorical support for the International Criminal Court when they prosecuted Slobodan Milošević or issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin, but then criticize it for doing the same thing with Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant? Perhaps. But it was also simply a case of the United States treating an institution as useful when directed against perceived enemies and not useful when directed against allies. Of course, one can argue that an international institution like the International Criminal Court should simply not be allowed to aggrandize itself against leaders of sovereign states lest it grow too powerful altogether, or that the United States shouldn’t be providing diplomatic cover to Israel’s political and military leaders in the first place, but in either instance the hypocrisy involved is a comparatively trivial matter.

All of this seems to presuppose that other states would be satisfied with the same (to them, unjust) outcomes provided that the United States or other powers were less hypocritical about it. But we might remember that hypocrisy is hardly the worst of vices, at least when compared with cruelty. Otherwise, it assumes that what states really care about is fairness as such. That is, they are offended by the failure of the United States to be impartial rather than by its failure to be partial in their favor. Needless to say, both of these are dubious propositions.

Arguably, the real danger is that the practice of resorting to hypocritical rhetoric produces sloppy thinking and poor mental habits where geopolitics is concerned. In an essay in Esquire, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” And while America has unquestionably benefited from public servants who were also first-rate minds, from John Quincy Adams to George Kennan to William Odom, it is not really feasible or prudent to rely exclusively on such figures.

The execution of a global foreign policy relies upon a vast bureaucratic network of diplomats, foreign service officers, analysts, and so on. On the one hand, the absence of strategic clarity as expressed in public statements at the highest level hampers their ability to perform. On the other, that same lack of clarity has a tendency to filter back up through higher channels resulting in a general confusion of purpose. Though this is another way of saying that the problem isn’t hypocrisy at all but sincerity. That the continued reliance on rhetoric concerning the “rules-based international order” had the result of changing its users’ perception of reality, Sapir-Whorf style, in ways that proved damaging to their foreign policy judgments.

Beyond this, there is another way that hypocrisy might matter, but it is again domestic. For, it may be that the normalization of deeply hypocritical behavior is damaging to the social and political cohesion that is necessary for any society to function. The question is not whether a given state is straightforward in all its dealings with other states — the question is whether its own people continue to believe in their country and are prepared to sacrifice for it. If by hypocrisy, we mean a kind of pure expediency in our dealings with others, with little adherence to steadfast principles, one can see how this is acidic to the ordinary bonds of loyalty and belief that hold a nation together through good and ill fortune.

The political theorist Laurie Johnson explains:

Thucydides’ History teaches that as the Athenians came to believe and act on their [cynical] theory of human nature and state action, their legitimacy declined among their allies and empire and their domestic political order became corrupt and disintegrated amid politicians who each followed his own self-interest.

This may be an extreme case, but something like this is a legitimate concern for (particularly democratic) governments that are obliged to explain their reasoning to their own publics, who might in turn believe that there have to be limits to pragmatism.

Ultimately, however, the consistency or hypocrisy of a given country’s (including America’s) international behavior is really a second-order problem, and focusing on it functions as a proxy for a more substantive issue, be it avoidable evils or ill-advised policy choices. And one suspects that so many dwell on it because it is easier than addressing the first-order questions: What are our interests here, if any, and what should we do about them?

Otherwise, even where hypocrisy appears to be the main problem, there is an imprecision in how we discuss it: The exact nature of the harm it does — whether to ourselves or others — remains vague. And in such discussions, it almost invariably gets caught up with other imprecise terms like “trust” and “credibility,” which are of similarly dubious significance in the arena of international politics.

Indeed, what almost always matters when it comes to a policy that was pursued in a manner deemed hypocritical by others is whether it ultimately proved successful. But this, too, is testament to its irrelevance. For, people rarely highlight the hypocrisy of successful policies. The fact that it succeeded surely suggests it was at least prima facie advisable. Conversely, its failure and associated costs are surely more important than the fact that hypocrisy was somehow involved.

In the end, though primacy or superiority accounts for much behavior we perceive as hypocritical, it is by no means the cause of it — the cause being rather the inevitable diversity of interests across different states, and the equally inevitable disagreement about the legitimacy of those interests. That these varied and not-infrequently opposed interests do not lead to the perpetual war of all against all is frequently attributed to the establishment of international law and international institutions. But it has far more to do with the credible authority of a hegemonic power in conjunction with the tools of diplomacy and statecraft, both of which entail in no small part — yes, hypocrisy.



David Polansky is a Toronto-based writer and research fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Toronto. Find him elsewhere at strangefrequencies.co

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