The ongoing international crisis over the Ukraine, in which Western leaders have condemned Russia’s heavy-handed incursion into the territory, have drawn accusations of hypocrisy from numerous commentators. After all, what else was the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 but a foreign power dominating a smaller nation in defiance of world opinion? What about Israel’s subjugation of Palestine? What about Panama, Grenada, Chile, and Vietnam? Why is armed intervention only wrong when the other side does it? In an essay he posted on March 5, CBC correspondent Neil Macdonald wrote off the outrage: “But that’s diplomacy. Hypocritical declarations and acts are woven into its essence…Money and hard power count, and that’s that. The big players have it, and the smaller players play along. If we need the anaesthetic liquor of self-delusion to deal with it, well, drink up.”
Hypocrisy is certainly a moral failing. We deplore the guy who preaches the sanctity of marriage when he’s revealed to have been unfaithful to his wife; we deplore the virtuously “fair-trade” company that turns out to employ sweat-shop labour; we deplore the politicians who lecture others about freedom and independence when they’ve authorized spying, coups d’etat, or outright wars against other countries. Hypocrisy has a way of making itself very obvious on the world stage: no matter what noble principle is invoked, you can be pretty sure the invoker has violated it themselves in the past.
But that’s the problem. It was hypocritical of the US to fight Nazi Germany with a racially segregated military. It was hypocritical for Canadian governments to call the USSR on human rights abuses, given Canada’s sorry record of relations with its Aboriginal peoples. It was hypocritical of Western countries to boycott the apartheid regime of South Africa, since they too had extensive histories of anti-black discrimination. They were all hypocrites for acting as they did, but on the other hand, we are all better off without Nazi Germany, the USSR, and apartheid. If states could never act on any ideal they had somewhere failed to live up to, ideals would hardly be worth having at all.
In 2002 libertarian columnist Matt Welch noted the recurring premise employed by Noam Chomsky in his critiques of American policy: “Chomsky’s logical gimmick…involves taking the loftiest of US rhetoric and comparing it with the grimiest of US history.” Yes, lofty rhetoric and grimy history are sometimes in stark contrast. Likewise, schoolteachers sometimes make spelling mistakes and game show contestants sometimes give dumb answers. But sitting in the back of the class, or on the living room couch, or on the geopolitical sidelines, and pointing out other people’s errors, amounts to mere pedantry. It’s easy to level charges of who-are-you-to-talk by citing all the previous instances when one country broke the rules it currently scolds another for breaking. It’s a lot harder to demonstrate that the rules still have value today, no matter how imperfectly they’ve been applied in the past. Hypocrisy may be a moral failing, but it’s not the only one, or the worst.
After September 11, 2001, the late Christopher Hitchens parried arguments that the actions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were the inevitable “blowback” of Western imperialism, and therefore the US and its allies had no moral high ground to claim. “But straight away,” Hitchens wrote, “we meet people who complain at once that this enemy is us, really. Did we not aid the grisly Taleban [sic] to achieve and hold power? Yes, indeed `we’ did. But does this not double or triple our responsibility to remove it from power?” The situation then wasn’t analogous to what’s happening in the Ukraine now, but Hitchens’ point remains: being wrong in the past shouldn’t prevent any right decision of the present. What the right decision might be, I’ll leave others to figure out, but crying hypocrisy won’t be enough to discount it.