Hypocrisy and War

MELBOURNE – All the world hates a hypocrite. When states preach virtues they do not practice, or set lower hurdles for allies, trading partners, or co-religionists than they do for others, irritation and non-cooperation are the least they can expect. International policymaking is a hardheaded, cynical business, but tolerance for double standards has its limits.

Russia discovered that when it invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to try to justify its 2008 invasion of Georgia. Democracy promotion by the United States and the European Union generates ridicule when it extends only to elections producing winners found palatable, as Gaza’s vote for Hamas in 2006 did not. Nuclear-weapons states keep learning the hard way that strengthening the non-proliferation regime is a tough sell when they drag their feet on disarmament.

And the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a gift that keeps on giving to the world’s malcontents: embracing the Security Council only when you get your way, but ignoring or undermining it when you don’t, is no way to promote a cooperative rule-based international order.

But in the real world, how consistent is it possible to be in responding to genocide and other mass atrocities, treaty breaches, border violations, or other serious trespasses against international law? To demand that every case that seems to look alike be treated alike might set the bar impossibly high, and certainly runs the risk of becoming hostage to critics – like those who attack the intervention in Libya – who assert that if you can’t act everywhere, you shouldn’t act anywhere.