U.S. Diplomats Preach Ideals Their Country Flouts. Is That Hypocrisy?

Our imperfections shouldn’t prevent us from improving other countries. We should recognize our deficiencies and work to correct them.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken released the 45th annual report on human rights practices around the world on March 30. Photo by the U.S. Department of State.

Diplomats manage relations with other countries and work to influence their policies and actions. In addition, U.S. diplomats advocate for improvement in human and civil rights, the rule of law and good governance. They speak out against the lack of transparency in government policies, crony capitalism, harsh immigration policies, manipulative voting practices and police impunity. In doing so, they can appear hypocritical when the actions they criticize in their host-country are also taking place in the United States.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last year renewed discussions about diversity in the State Department, and whether U.S. diplomats should do more to promote inclusion abroad. The United States has long been criticized for espousing liberal ideas while tolerating or even encouraging a system of structural racism that deliberately worked to disadvantage Black Americans and other minorities. 

Although the hypocrisy accusations are not without merit, it’s important to remember American history and the U.S. Constitution, whose preamble opens with “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” The American ideal is not that we live in a perfect union, but that we recognize its imperfections and must work to improve the country. We must recognize that racism and other problems exist in the United States, and that the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrate strong efforts to improve. Furthermore, these imperfections shouldn’t prevent us from improving other countries.

Advocating for American ideals was a driving force in my own Foreign Service career. During my oral entrance exam more than 40 years ago, one of the examiners on the panel asked which movie about American life I’d show a foreign audience. I chose the 1957 courtroom drama “12 Angry Men” for its focus on the importance of the rule of law and the challenge of living up to our ideals on a daily basis. As a diplomat abroad, I witnessed the positive impact our advocacy for democracy and good governance had on other countries. But it gets tough when our own country — or parts of it — enacts policies that the U.S. Embassy in a foreign country would criticize and pressure the host-government to correct.

One such policy area is the management of immigration and refugees. Most countries accept some immigrants, but when faced with a surge, they often engage in practices that Washington finds objectionable. It has criticized European allies, Turkey and countries in North Africa, among others, for their detention of migrants or harsh methods to discourage entry by boat or on foot. At the same time, the United States has systematically engaged in the separation of families, including toddlers, and detention in facilities that resembled cages. That is not to deny or minimize the surging numbers of migrants at the U.S. southern border, but we need to treat people humanely. The Biden administration is making efforts to do so, and such changes will bring more credibility to U.S. diplomats’ work.

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Many countries have been dealing with police impunity and extrajudicial killings. Our embassies in Brazil and the Philippines have pressed those governments to discontinue policies that encourage police shootings and hold individual officers responsible when they use excessive or unnecessary force. The Black Lives Matter movement is a vivid demonstration that vigorous efforts need to be made at home. Even as such efforts continue, U.S. diplomats can and should continue their advocacy abroad.

Dozens of journalists are killed around the world every year, whether by alleged official actions, such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, or through governments’ encouragement or indifference. In countries such as China, newspapers are shut down and editors of even children’s magazines are arrested. U.S. diplomats routinely advocate for press freedom and independent journalism. Discovering that the U.S. Department of Justice in the Trump administration monitored the phones of journalists and their families to figure out who may have “leaked” certain information has a chilling effect on journalism and makes it more difficult for diplomats to do their jobs overseas.

The United States sends its diplomats and citizens to observe numerous elections overseas. Their presence improves voter access, especially for marginalized communities, and levels the playing field for opposition participation. I personally observed more than a dozen elections abroad, most of them free and fair, but some less so. So it was deeply disturbing that a sitting president attempted to overturn the results of a free and fair election at home, and that he was helped by officials working to undermine confidence in the U.S. election system and suppress voting by marginalized communities. This continued behavior at the federal and state levels for purely political purposes will further shake Americans’ confidence in their institutions. Against this backdrop, diplomats find it difficult to encourage other nations to place confidence in the ballot box.

In most of the cited areas, the majority of Americans recognize our deficiencies and are working to correct them. In the last example, the trends are much more troubling as substantial numbers of Americans either support voter-suppression efforts or are indifferent to them. It will require years to restore confidence, both at home and abroad. For my part, I’ll continue to support elections at home and observe and advocate for better election systems abroad.

Our founding fathers recognized that the United States would need constant vigilance and improvement. The progress of the American experience and pursuit of its ideals is never complete. This is not hypocrisy, but growth and understanding. U.S. diplomats should point that out overseas.