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Where does the west stand on global freedom of expression?

US talk of global freedom of expression and an open internet sit uneasily with their sharp clampdown on Wikileaks. Can the west be honest with itself?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic speech in January 2010 on internet freedom was celebrated as an unequivocal policy statement on global free speech and expression. She warned us that “some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks.” Echoing Winston Churchill’s iron curtain speech, she said that “with the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.” And the US is prepared to penetrate this information curtain, as she said, “on their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognise that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.”

One year on, the world seems to be moving closer to much of the bold vision including many of the steps that Clinton envisioned. However, it happens in the wrong places and in ways the political establishment shows little support for, suggesting that the championing of transparency by politicians like Clinton does not translate straightforwardly into political sincerity and openness. First, the secrecy of America’s intelligence and diplomatic agencies was exposed when Wikileaks orchestrated the largest intelligence leak in history, with over 250,000 diplomatic cables from US embassies and consulates being gradually published. They provide ugly information on backroom diplomacy, cover-ups and dirty tactics, such as the secret collusion between US and UK officials during the Iraq inquiry. As US government officials criticised Wikileaks for exposing classified information, it is clear that they don’t want the information curtain shielding the unelected permanent foreign policy apparatus of the American empire to disappear.

Then, Washington found itself in a dilemma when protesters in Egypt demanded the exit of their president, Hosni Mubarak, who has brought Egypt three decades of corrupt governance and despotic rule but was one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East. And while dictators are toppled by people, not social media platforms, the power of technology to organise activists, catalyse pro-democracy movement, and transmit hopes across repressed countries in the Middle East is amply demonstrated. Egypt would make a good poster child of Clinton’s internet freedom, let alone Obama’s call for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world in a speech delivered in Cairo early in his presidency. But over the course of the revolution, Washington has treaded a fine line between the Mubarak regime and Egyptians’ popular demand for democracy. In typical Orwellian political jargon, ‘stability’ in the Middle East is a euphemism for supporting dictatorial regimes which are aligned with American interests, support for Israel and repression of the Palestinians, reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf, suppression of Islamic radicals, and, in the case of Egypt, protection of the Suez Canal.

For leaders of western liberal democracies, such moral conflict is not new. For many years, they have pursued business in countries with dubious human rights records. British companies, with official sanction by the Foreign Office, have long been involved in arms and oil and gas dealings in Burma. A few years ago, when John Pilger of The Guardian asked Aung San Suu Kyi whether “the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles” through commercial contacts with democratic nations, her response was, “not a bit of it.” When UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited Beijing last November, it is clear that doing big business with China trumps all else. The same is true when Barack Obama visited China in 2009, or when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited France earlier in 2010. Seeing the hypocrisy of putting trade ahead of human rights, Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei sent a message to David Cameron in The Guardian, “now all the nations of the developed world are trying to do business with China. Of course, it’s an arrangement in which both sides profit. But on the Chinese side it means more unfairness to labourers and damage to the environment. This kind of business is done through the sacrifice of basic values and human dignity. People are not looking for mercy, but we think the world has to become unified. You cannot simply give up fundamental beliefs in human rights for a short-term gain.”

Such hypocrisy may be uncomfortable, but it is made less so by the fact that it is by nature imperial hypocrisy. John Mearsheimer, an international relations theorist, wrote in his most recent book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics, that “virtually all leaders – whether they head up autocracies or democracies – are wont to justify their behaviour in terms of liberal norms and international law, even when their actions are principally motivated by the kind of hard-headed strategic calculations identified with realism.” He said that “this penchant for liberal rhetoric does not create problems as long as a country’s behaviour is consistent with both realist and liberal dictates, as it often is.” But problems arise “when realist and idealist imperatives are at odds with each other. In those cases, elites will usually act like realists and talk like liberals, which invariably necessitates deception, including lying.”

But, consistent to his realist tradition that international politics is a nasty and dangerous business, he is of the view that liberal lies do not have a significant downside either at home or abroad. “Most people do not recognise that lying is taking place, because they are inclined to believe that their own country almost always acts nobly. Thus, there is not much danger of blowback. But even in those rare instances when liberal lies do not work as intended and the public recognises that their country has acted in an immoral or illegal way, there is not much danger of blowback, because most people understand that the rule book used in international politics is not the same one used inside their country’s borders.”

Practitioners of international politics are like the men on imperial duty described by Orwell in Shooting an Elephant: “I was seemingly the leading actor in the piece, but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.” Driven by harsh realities of the world, all they could do is to wear a mask and go shoot the elephant.

So is there a way out of this hypocrisy? David Runciman, writing in Political Hypocrisy, offers a negative answer, stating that “democracies cannot be honest with themselves about imperial projects – about what is needed to sustain them, about what they cost in financial and moral terms – so democratic leaders who plead a sincere faith in democracy to justify their imperial adventures have justified nothing.”

This month, Hillary Clinton delivered again a major speech on internet freedom. In an awkward bit of timing, US government prosecutors urged a federal magistrate on the same day to uphold a court order requiring Twitter to disclose confidential information about three Wikileaks supporters. “It’s a typical example of ‘it’s right for thee but not for me’,” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz commented earlier, “they’re perfectly happy to see all of Iran’s secrets disclosed, but they draw the line at their own. They’re perfectly happy to see open media in every other part of the world, but here they’re trying to close down media that has challenged them.”

In essence, the US’ secret crackdown on Wikileaks is little different from China’s ‘great firewall’ approach on the internet. Nor is US or UK support for and business dealings with the dictatorial regimes of Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, among others, very different from China’s underwriting of genocide in Sudan, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, buying of blood diamonds from Africa, and bagging of oil contracts after backing the junta in Burma. Perhaps the only difference is that western democracies dress them in liberal lies. The question remains: is opportunism and profit to rule the world, or can we make a real connection between moral considerations, strategic calculations and policies?

But there is hope. The recent popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt reveal the profound democratic impulse in the Middle East, and it represents both a learning and challenge to the international democracy actors. While democracy is the best guarantor of stability in the long run, the US might find it appealing to work with a dictator in the short term. Now the opportunity is open for the building of a sustainable democracy in the region. It is a safer bet for the long-term safety of western business and investments. We may not be able to get rid of all hypocrisy in international politics, but it is a better kind of hypocrisy nevertheless.

About the author

Andy Yee is a policy analyst for Google in Asia Pacific, and a former researcher at the Political Section of the European Union Delegation to China in Beijing. He writes at Global Voices Online, China Geeks and East Asia Forum. Find him on Twitter @ahkyee.