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The Case for Honesty in Foreign Policy
Hypocrisy is overrated. Let's say less and do more. Here's how.
As Wisdom of Crowds continues to delve into themes around democracy, decline, and hypocrisy, we’re excited to publish this essay bywho writes at .
What I love about this piece is that it smartly contradicts my own (qualified) defense of hypocrisy. Mike argues instead that honesty beats insult. In a democracy, he writes, we must respect voters by doing as much as we can to avoid hypocrisy even if it means saying less about the values we hold dear. Enjoy!
When a parent tells their child that “honesty is the best policy,” they are not being entirely honest with them. They know that when the child grows up, they will encounter situations where half-truths and white lies serve them better than complete candor. This is not an immoral thing for the parent to do. Young brains do not fully understand how politeness and harmony are sometimes more important than total factual accuracy. They will learn as they get older, but during childhood it is best to keep things simple.
Societies are not children. The adult citizens that make up a country have agency and can make nuanced decisions that children cannot. That does not mean they are inherently virtuous; every human being is capable of being selfish and short-sighted, regardless of who they are and where they live. But while it is always tempting for stronger countries to look down on weaker ones and to believe it is okay to mislead them for their own good, doing so is infantilizing.
If you believe, as I do, that every human being has dignity, and that adults deserve a say in the running of their governments, they deserve to know how democratic their country is. If elections in their country have been stolen, they deserve to know that. And if you say you care about their democracy, then they deserve to know whether you are going to back that statement up with actions. This means choosing honesty even when it is inconvenient.
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President Biden makes much of the conflict between democracies and autocracies around the globe. In his first year in office, though, he faced a test of how committed to democracy he actually was, and he failed. When Kais Saied staged a coup against Tunisia’s democracy, the United States did not cut off aid. It did not even call the coup a coup. Similarly, Biden later went back on his pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, and fist-bumped the thoroughly autocratic Mohammed bin Salman.
Does this make Biden’s rhetorical defense of democracy hypocritical? He may genuinely believe that democracy is better than autocracy and that the United States should prefer the former, but also that he has to make exceptions in certain cases. Even if it is not hypocritical though, it is certainly insulting. It patronizes people who care about democracy and assumes they will not notice the gap between a world leader’s words and his actions.
How likely is it that people around the globe really believe America cares deeply about democracy? Particularly in the Global South, people are well aware of the many times the United States put anti-communism and economic interests ahead of democracy during the Cold War. More recently, the United States has endorsed as legitimate elections it knew were fraudulent. It did this in Afghanistan in 2009. It did it in the Congo in 2018. It is common knowledge that the American record of upholding democracy is anything but consistent.
A defense one could give is that a stolen election is better than the violence that may result from the honest revelation of fraud. That is a valid concern, especially since Afghanistan and the Congo have been embroiled in long wars. Blunt honesty may very well cost lives, and it makes sense if the United States prefers saving those lives over promoting certain political values. If that means taking democracy off the priorities list, so be it. But Washington has to choose which it values more: the integrity of free and fair elections, or the absence of violent conflict.
A government is accountable first and foremost to its own citizens. Its most basic function is to protect those citizens from threats to their physical safety. Sometimes that requires going to war. Every now and then, it is necessary for the American president to authorize the killing of foreigners, whether he respects their intelligence and dignity or not.
Doing what is necessary, however, is not identical to doing what is in one’s self-interest. Even if, for example, an Egyptian dictator looks like a more reliable ally than a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that does not mean it is necessary to sit back while the Egyptian military overthrows a freely elected government. When the Brotherhood was in power, the United States. had the option of working with them as well as it could, knowing that Washington would sometimes not get its way. If Mohammed Morsi had refused to help the United States get what it wanted on specific issues, it could have looked for more cooperative allies instead.
It may sometimes be in America’s self-interest to lie about another country’s election being above board. American leaders may also think it is in their interest to talk a good game about democracy, even if they do not intend to protect fragile democracies when they are threatened. But it is not necessary to do either of these. The choice is not between avoiding trouble and enduring it. The choice is between trouble caused by honesty (like more conflict in countries that have seen much of it) and trouble caused by dishonesty (like pissing off people in other countries). Pick your poison.
In The Problem of Democracy, Shadi makes a strong case that, despite a long history of American hypocrisy in the Middle East, the United States should still promote democracy in the region. A country that falls short in promoting the values it claims to believe can narrow the gap either by promoting its values more consistently or by dialing back its rhetoric about its beliefs. “But the gap can never be closed entirely,” Shadi writes, “so a country like the United States will always be hypocritical.” The fact that the United States will never be completely consistent in defending democracy should not be a reason for it to be indifferent to peoples’ democratic aspirations.
It is true that, as a people who see themselves as champions of democracy, Americans would lose something valuable if they became indifferent to democracy overseas. Despite all the times their country has sided with dictators, as long as Americans believe to some degree that they should aid aspiring democrats, there is a chance the United States will more consistently champion the values it proclaims. “In foreign affairs, to oppose hypocrisy to an extreme,” Shadi argues, “is to give up hope that the United States can become better – even if, in being better, it still falls well short of what we might wish it to be.”
When it comes to narrowing the gap between rhetoric and action, the ideal choice for the United States would be to move in both directions: talking about democracy less while doing more to actually support it in countries where it is threatened. If American leaders made a habit of saying the d-word less frequently in speeches, while also taking actions that prioritized democracy over other interests – like withholding aid from militaries that oust their countries’ elected governments – the world might become less cynical about American intentions.
If, however, the United States is not going to actually do anything – anything that may involve effort or risk or sacrifice on its part – to support democracy in specific countries, it may be best if American leaders don’t get people’s hopes up by boasting about their concern for it. If democracy is going to play tenth fiddle to other foreign policy interests, perhaps American presidents should not boast about how much they value it. Hopefully presidents will not actually make that choice and will instead strike the best balance they can between cooperating with autocrats for security reasons – as they sometimes must – and using American power and influence to help democracies survive and thrive. But if they find the balance too hard to strike – if they do not truly intend to choose democracy when doing so risks other interests – it is better to be candid about where their true priorities lie. Honesty is better than dashed hopes.
What will that do to Americans’ sense of self? Giving up on democracy promotion would be disorienting for many Americans. It is not pleasant for a country that believes itself to be a force for good in the world to look its moral failings square in the eye. But foreigners are not the only ones who deserve respect from the United States government. If America’s leaders are not willing to be honest with their own citizens about how much or how little they truly value democracy abroad, foreigners are not the only people they are treating like children. They are infantilizing their fellow Americans too, assuming they are not intelligent enough to realize when their government is being hypocritical. That gives Americans, who already have a hard time trusting their government, another reason to be cynical. Democracy at home thus suffers at the same time as democracy abroad.
It is possible for the United States to protect its own interests as well as other peoples’ dignity, provided it realizes it will not always be able to protect both at once. If America can minimize its hypocrisy, while remembering its own fallibility and keeping its expectations of itself modest, it will be able to truly call democracy promotion a foreign policy priority, even if it is not its top priority. Repeatedly raising people’s hopes up only to dash them, by contrast, is both cruel and counterproductive. Better to treat adults like adults and make them think you are self-interested, than to treat them like children and let them see how you actually don’t respect them.
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