A Hypocrisy Scorecard: Welcome to the Brave Old World

Amid the negotiations over the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, the sending of more American troops to Europe, and President Biden’s threats of “swift and severe” sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, more attention should be given to history to highlight hypocrisy in the current crisis.

Western leaders insist that any sovereign nation like Ukraine has the right to choose whichever alliance it wishes to join. Russians counter that the doctrine of the indivisibility of security means that if Ukraine joins NATO, it will be a threat to Russia.

The West argues for Ukrainian national autonomy. Countering, Russia cites Article 8 of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 1999 Istanbul Document signed by leaders of 54 states including President William Clinton: “We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.”  (Italics added)

The West is individualistic. The Russians are communal. No surprise there as both follow their declared ideologies.

But history will show that this has not always been the case. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Americans argued that Soviet missiles in Cuba threatened the security of the United States and the entire Western Hemisphere. In a speech to the nation on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said that the “transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base constitutes an implicit threat to the peace and security of the Americas.” This echoed the 19th century U.S. foreign policy of the Monroe Doctrine which said that “any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the U.S.”

The Soviets argued in 1962 that Cuba had a right to fix its national security policy. And most importantly, that the Soviet Union would guarantee Cuba’s defense against a possible U.S. invasion, keeping in mind the Bay of Pigs incursion in 1961. Although no definitive reason for Khrushchev’s 1962 decision to send the missiles has been established, a noted expert suggested that it would have added credibility to “the threat to defend Cuba against U.S. attack.”

In 1962, the United States was communal in defending the Americas. The Soviets were individualistic in defending Cuba.

Is it hypocritical to defend one position in 1962 and a different position in 2022, or is it merely a reflection of political realities? In 1962, the United States defended its sphere of influence in the Americas while the Soviets wanted to defend fellow communists. In 2022, the Russians want to defend their sphere of influence in eastern Europe while the Americans want to defend a “democratic” Ukraine.

Beyond this brief foray into political philosophy lies a realpolitik on both sides. Realpolitik is beyond ideology or morality; it is pragmatic and practical. What’s in this for my national interest?

In 1962, the Soviets were trying to spread and defend communism throughout the world. Theirs was a global movement. And the United States was also defending and spreading its influence, and not just its sphere of influence in the Americas. For example, in the 1950s, the U.S. was influential outside the Western Hemisphere in overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh.

References to 1962 and the Cuban Missile crisis are pertinent because we are back in the high politics of the Cold War with all its realpolitik and hypocrisy. Whether one looks at the military build-ups, state-to-state diplomacy including multilateral organizations, or threatened economic sanctions, we are witnessing global politics in all its glory. Heads of state are visiting one another. There is frantic shuttle diplomacy. Pacts and arrangements are being worked out – see Russia and China.

Forget diversity, inclusion, or inequality. Forget identity politics such as Black Lives Matter unless it means Ukraine’s identity as part of the West or Russia’s sphere of influence. Troop build-ups have pushed climate change off the front pages.

Sure, there are differences between now and 1962. JFK and Robert Kennedy are not around. Remember that during the crucial thirteen days of the Cuban crisis many in Kennedy’s cabinet wanted to bomb Cuba pre-emptively. Luckily, Bobby suggested that all have a good night’s sleep. The next day the Cabinet decided to establish what it called a quarantine, and the threat of nuclear war was avoided.

Today, there are no immediate threats of nuclear war. Neither side seems ready to go blow for blow. The new Russian-Chinese agreement is also a radical shift from their previous tensions over border issues. Technology has impacted as has the pandemic. But fundamentally, the state system has re-asserted itself with issues of territory, armies, alliances, and hypocrisy. We are very far from the idealized global village.

Significantly, the United Nations Security Council, supposed to be the venue to settle disputes diplomatically, has taken a back seat. Where is the Secretary-General? Despite reams of declarations from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the major multilateral organization has not been the focus of any negotiations in this crisis. To add insult to injury, the UN Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzya called the U.S. “particularly hypocritical” for convening the UN Security Council. The Russians and Chinese tried to block the meeting. Whereas during the Cold War the UN was the center of diplomatic confrontation, it has become an off-Broadway show.

Power politics, realpolitik and hypocrisy go hand in hand. That’s where we are today. Welcome to the brave old world.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.