The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Hypocrisy watch

July 20, 2010

Before departing on vacation, Stephen Walt posted about a rift between South Korea and the United States concerning spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. The U.S. is opposed, primarily because plutonium is a byproduct, while South Korea wants to reprocess waste so as to reduce the volume of nuclear refuse from its large-scale atomic energy program.

To reduce proliferation fears inherently tied to plutonium production, South Korean policy in this area reflects a pledge (and as Walt notes, implicit threat), that “We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us.”

After making other interesting points about the dispute, Walt makes an argument that I have often discussed in the past. The U.S. view on nonproliferation is laden with hypocricy:

it’s hard not to be struck by the basic hypocrisy of the U.S. position, which it shares with other existing nuclear powers. Washington has no intention of giving up its own nuclear weapons stockpile or its access to all forms of nuclear technology. The recent New START treaty notwithstanding, U.S. government still believes it needs thousands of nuclear weapons deployed or in reserve, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional military forces on the planet, has no great powers nearby, and faces zero-risk of a hostile invasion. Yet we don’t think a close ally like South Korea should be allowed to reprocess spent fuel, take any other measures that might under some circumstances move them closer to a nuclear capability of their own.

Walt and I agree about what counts as hypocrisy, what about the implications for foreign policy? Walt:

In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics.

Criticial theorists like me are a lot lest sanguine about the meaning of hypocrisy. In fact, critical theorists see it as a basic function of their scholarship to reveal hypocritical policies and arguments in order to foment emancipatory political change. If the illogic undergirding inconsistent positions is revealed and thus undermined, replacement policies and arguments are more likely to reflect something like well-reasoned consensus. At least that’s a central purpose of immanent critique.

As I’ve argued previously, many contemporary neorealists like Walt seem also to prefer a world with less hypocrisy. The short blog post about the U.S.-South Korea dispute is no exception:

But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.

Read differently: if the U.S. was less hypocritical, its policies would be more effective.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.