Over a year ago, we wrote about a wonderful piece in Foreign Affairs by Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, noting that the real “danger” of the Snowden and Manning revelations was that it effectively killed off the US’s ability to use hypocrisy as a policy tool. Here was the key bit (though the whole article is worth reading):

The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.

Few U.S. officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource. Indeed, one of the reasons American hypocrisy is so effective is that it stems from sincerity: most U.S. politicians do not recognize just how two-faced their country is. Yet as the United States finds itself less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words, it will face increasingly difficult choices — and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.

The argument that Farrell and Finnemore made was that the revelations that came about because of the whistleblowing by Snowden and Manning made it such that this hypocrisy didn’t function as well, because it made it much easier for others to simply call bullshit.

Now, a new article at Foreign Policy, by Kristin Lord, takes this argument even further, by looking at the CIA torture program and how it has totally undermined America’s “soft power” in diplomacy. Lord, thankfully, makes it quite clear that the problem here is the CIA’s program and not (as some have tried to argue) the release of the report about the program:

But the fault lies not with those who released the report, as some critics argue, but with those who permitted and perpetrated acts of torture, those who lied about it to America’s elected representatives, and those who willfully kept the president and senior members of the Bush administration in the dark. Their actions undermined not only American values, but also American influence and national security interests. In the words of a former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the actions laid out in the Senate report “stained our national honor” and “did much harm and little practical good.”

But the key point of Lord’s article, like the earlier one by Farrell and Finnemore, is that the US has long relied on its “soft power strategy” of convincing others to do things because it’s “the right thing to do.” The US has long presented itself as holding a higher moral ground. However, as Lord points out, the soft power the US uses goes beyond just the moral high ground:

While morality is a normative system of values and principles that guides just behavior, soft power is ultimately about influence. As Joseph Nye, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has argued, there are many different ways to affect the behavior of others. One can coerce with threats. One can induce with incentives. Or one can exercise the power of attraction, co-opting others who want the same things you want through the legitimacy of your policies and the values upon which they’re founded. The latter is called soft power.

Moral authority facilitates soft power, but so do relationships, shared values, and interlinking interests. Given the ideological component of so many of the national security threats that face the United States going forward — and the inability of any one country to meet them alone — soft power can be an important part of the strategy to address these threats. But Americans will need to cultivate it.

As the article makes clear, it seems like US leaders don’t seem to recognize just how important the US’s “soft power” is — and how fragile it might be in the wake of the revelations of the past couple of years. What Farrell and Finnemore described as the power of American hypocrisy is becoming increasingly clear, making it an increasingly less effective diplomatic tool. And others are seizing on this.

Lord’s piece then goes into a detailed explanation of what the US needs to do if it wishes to continue exercising “soft power” to influence the world. And part of that is recognizing just how badly the US has screwed up over the past decade and a half (mostly in response to 9/11):

First, it has to “walk the walk,” aligning actions and values, rhetoric and deeds. This is understandably difficult in a country with complex and wide-ranging foreign policy interests, but the United States could do better in one key respect: weighing potential damage to America’s moral authority when considering policy options. Such considerations are often trumped, and not without cause. Policymakers are regularly forced to choose from a series of bad options, and when they do, clear and short-term consequences weigh more heavily than diffuse costs to notions like reputation. If the United States is serious about countering challenges to its national security interests and democratic ideals, however, this must change. Perceptions that the United States does not live up to its own values fundamentally undermine American power and inhibit the country’s ability to defend not just its own interests, but also universal standards of what is right and just. They undermine America’s ability to defend the time-proven value of the moral high ground, and they empower cynical actors eager to seize the propaganda advantage.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather than using the release of the Snowden documents or the CIA terror report as a true chance to reflect, to admit where things went wrong, and to show a real commitment to doing better in the future and being transparent about it, it has instead resulted in typical partisan bickering, ridiculous and counterproductive defenses of harmful surveillance and torture, and very little actual introspection. It is this response that only helps perpetuate the continuing and rapid deflation of any moral high ground that the US had to stand on.

The basic stated values of the US are something worth spreading and perpetuating. But the only way you can legitimately do that is to admit when the country has strayed from those values, and that means a true and honest accounting of where things went wrong, along with a transparent and concrete plan for dealing with those failings and making sure they don’t happen again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening, and many in power don’t seem to understand the damages this is doing to the US’s power around the globe.


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