Does hypocrisy matter in foreign policy?

I know it sounds like I’m whining about hypocrisy, but that’s not it. Honestly. Hypocrisy drives people nuts, but you can live with it, if it remains mere bluster. It’s the real world consequences that smart. .


Early in Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine, there was much talk about the need to humiliate Russia. “Humiliation is the only way to end the Russo-Ukrainian War and give Russia a chance of returning to civilization,” wrote an academic. I was fretting over this to a friend, who said, “Don’t you want Russia to be humiliated?” To my surprise, I heard myself say, “I want all aggressors to be humiliated. Russia, the U.S., China …”

I’d expected I’d say something about humiliation making it harder to end the war, or that it’d only advance U.S. goals. Instead, I blurted a pox on them all.

I felt comparably perplexed listening to UN ambassador Bob Rae’s year-end interviews. One expects a bit more than boilerplate from Rae and he tries to deliver, if not always successfully.

Globe reporter Shannon Proudfoot called Rae an adult among toddlers at the UN because he claims Canada’s role is “just to tell the truth.” So, on Iran, he says: “You’re killing people, you’re throwing people in jail and torturing them.”

Yet he mentions nothing about the U.S. having green-lighted coups and trained torturers throughout Latin America. He told another Globe reporter that Ukraine “affected me on a deep, emotional level.” But he’s selectively affected; he talks this way about Russian atrocities, not how the U.S. erased Fallujah; bombed Libya, creating chaos; or blockaded Iraq so 500,000 kids likely died.

The biggest distortions on our side are always about the United States. Russia has an ugly record of aggression and China a smaller one but the U.S. is unique, at least postwar, for invasions and their kin, coups. Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya — the U.S. cited noble motives for each, but so does every aggressor. You can tell the U.S. is lying — as Rae said referring exclusively to Russia — because their lips move.

I know it sounds like I’m whining about hypocrisy, but that’s not it. Honestly. Hypocrisy drives people nuts, but you can live with it, if it remains mere bluster. It’s the real world consequences that smart. So Saudi aggression against Yemen, unlike Russia’s against Ukraine, goes uncriticized by our side, though it’s now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Israel is allowed a nuclear arsenal but Iran isn’t, so the Mideast remains the world’s worst nuclear tinderbox. Cuba’s too close to the U.S. to be left in peace but China isn’t allowed similar claims over Taiwan, another offshore island. Two-faced foreign policy B.S. doesn’t create these travesties, but it surely helps them thrive.

People suffer and die, resources are diverted from areas like health, and cooperation among major powers on climate is undermined. Resentment builds and convulsions eventually occur, like 9-11, or the rise of ISIS after U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So is it hopeless? No. In Ukraine’s case, there have been interesting reactions. Former colonies like India or Indonesia, and even Saudi Arabia — a shocker — haven’t followed the U.S. on isolating Russia, though they all reject the invasion. They recognize B.S. and propaganda and don’t just dive in, as we tend to.

I acknowledge there’s no easy route for Canada on this. We aren’t India or Indonesia and we can’t afford to become Cuba. But we, and ambassador Bob, could at least give some sign of struggling with the issues and not just autonomically saluting the U.S. position. In the Vietnam era, PM Lester Pearson tried clumsily to straddle both sides of the raging conflict over that U.S. invasion and actually got himself throttled by president Lyndon Johnson on the White House porch for it. Yet, I think people elsewhere at least recognized his effort.

There’s a nice moment in the latest episode of 1923, the Yellowstone spinoff. Rancher Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford) explains that all human history is about letting others take what’s yours, or destroying them. For those of us who aren’t rancher barons or nuclear superpowers, there ought to be another way.


This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[