THE End of History was not accompanied by a self-satisfied sigh at the state department. Even after the US emerged as the world's sole superpower, and global gendarme to boot, its foreign policy mandarins continued flailing around in the familiar quagmire of shifting alliances and ethical paradoxes. The result: deeds that were completely, and often self-defeatingly, at variance with Capitol Hill's lofty moral pronouncements.
Indeed, this dichotomy has always been characteristic of American diplomacy. But what is the moral framework of its foreign policy? Former Indian foreign secretary J.N. Dixit defines it as upholding democracy, freedom and human rights and working for economic justice around the world, together with a policy that is non-acquisitive and non-exploitative. Well, the American foreign policy is anything but this.
Besides, sole superpowerhood does not always entitle the US to play boss. As was evident during the last crisis over weapons inspections in Iraq—France and Russia didn't let Washington bomb Iraq, as it was inclined too. But there was nothing that could stop the Americans from targeting missiles on Sudan and Afghanistan. In the end, the strikes seemed to have achieved nothing, but they did send a message the world over that if it suits American interests, they can go to any length.
Significantly, the irony of the Sudan and Afghanistan strikes was not lost on anyone. The Americans were attacking a man, Osama bin Laden, with whom they till recently had shared interests, at least in Afghanistan. And he was under the protection of a force, the Taliban, in whose creation the US had a big hand. Things have got complicated in the post-Cold War period, with the US still groping for a foe. Could it be Islam?
In fact, Washington has often backed the wrong horse or supported questionable regimes—Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, as well as several other dictators in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Does this qualify as hypocrisy? Ardhanari Ramaswamy, a software engineer in Washington, thinks the US "makes no pretence when it comes to self-interest in foreign policy, and not even enlightened self-interest at that". For the four decades from the end of World War II to the collapse of communism, the US waged a relentless battle against communist and left-wing governments. American commitment was less to democracy, more to regimes against communism, regardless of its democratic nature. As long as they were against communism, it didn't matter what crimes these regimes committed against their own people or even against Americans. From El Salvador to Nicaragua to Guatemala, American newspapers often detail horror stories of US citizens (social workers, priests, nuns) involved in freedom movements only to be killed by US-backed regimes—with the state department either looking the other way or actively collaborating in the cover-up. For years it was reluctant to dissociate itself from the apartheid regime in Pretoria. Only the moral outrage of the American people and the world at large forced a policy change.
However, a state department official takes issue with the premise that the US had once supported maverick regimes that later turned out to be particularly evil, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Iran and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. "Most of those listed were considered successful within the context of a certain time." On the US' initial support of the Taliban in Afghanistan despite their record of human rights violations and treatment of women, he prefers to keep mum.
India is also a case in point. Despite the oft-heard platitudes about the two large democracies, New Delhi and Washington have shared an uneasy relationship. On the other hand, communist China has fared much better. As Chintamani Mahapatra of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses notes, successive American presidents since the time of Richard Nixon have taken numerous steps to improve ties with China, despite its abysmal human rights record. This inconsistency came to the fore yet again this May when Washington reacted with outrage to the Indian nuclear tests, no matter that for years the Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation and exports have been ignored.
American hypocrisy is also evident in its dealings with international institutions. Take the UN. Consecutive US administrations have disregarded their financial commitments, running into billions of dollars, in the name of reforms in the UN when the problem is that the global body does not toe the American line. Of course, Washington will not put it that way.