Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna. He is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the Board of Trustees of The International Crisis Group and is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He  is the 2018-19 Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress.   Ivan Krastev is also member of the Ethical Board of “The Bridge”. His latest books in English are After Europe (UPenn Press, May 2017); Democracy Disrupted. The Global Politics on Protest (UPenn Press, May 2014); In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders? (TED Books, 2013). Ivan Krastev is a co-author with Stephen Holmes of a forthcoming book The Light that Failed (Penguin, 2019) on perils of the politics of imitation. 


Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson “Ulysses”


The widespread, growing criticism of Western hypocrisy is a distinctive characteristic of the world we live in today. It is a powerful expression of the crisis of liberal hegemony. “Tear off the Masks!”is a slogan with only limited appeal in most societies, writes historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, “as it operates on the assumption that civilization requires a certain amount of masking. In revolutions, however, that assumption is suspended.”[1]If Fitzpatrick is right,we are living in revolutionary times.

Tirades against the hypocrisy of the West and liberalism more generally can be heard in different corners of the world. The targets and purposes of these tirades are distinctively different; yet the obsession with hypocrisy is a common trait among political actors as different as the supporters of the radical left and radical right in the EU, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, America’s President Donald Trump, radical Islamists in the Middle East, and anti-imperialists in Latin America.

What are the sources of this hyper-sensitivity about hypocrisy? Is the problem power asymmetries that make relatively less powerful states and societies particularly sensitive to the big boys breaking the rules? Is it the tendency of the US and the EU in the post-Cold War decades, more so than any other global power, to regularly invoke universal principles to justify their conduct of foreign policy? Is it the realization that West’s universalism can be used as a weapon against the West?


Liberal Order in Crisis

On December 10, 1948, shattered by the horrors of World War II, the international community adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Of the United Nations’ fifty-eight member states, forty-eight voted in favor of the declaration, eight abstained (the Soviet Union and its East European allies plus Saudi Arabia), and two did not vote.

The world was far less liberal in 1948 than it is today, and the concept of human rights wasn’t popular with the global public. Nevertheless, it would hardly raise an eyebrow were one to speculate that, if the 1948 Universal Declaration came up for a vote in the UN tomorrow, the chances of it being approved would be very slim. The fate of the Global Compact for Migration is the most recent setback lending credence to such speculation. [2]

In 1948, the liberal order was a normative horizon; today it is a contested hegemony. Just yesterday it was common to view hypocrisy as the necessary complement of any universalistic project. Now hypocrisy is felt to be the Achilles heel of a West-dominated liberal order.

In April 2017, nearly seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the University of Toronto hosted a much-publicized debate between two prominentpublic intellectuals on the question, has the liberal order ended?[3]

The answer of history professor Niall Ferguson was an unequivocal yes, for two reasons. First, Ferguson argued,the major beneficiary of the liberal orderhas turned out to be communist China, hardly a liberal paragon or patron. China used America-led globalization to build its own economic and military power while preserving its authoritarian system. Ferguson’s second argument was thatthe liberal order’s major accomplishment has beenthe destruction of the Western middle classes,whowere the major pillars of theliberal order for more than half a century. It was free trade and globalization that led to the rise of the middle classes in the Global South while simultaneously leading to de-industrialization and the squeezing of the middle classes in the West.In Ferguson’s view, the liberal order was nothing more than an intra-elite agreement to promote globalization, andthe populist uprising in bothhe European Union and the United States that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is the best demonstration that ordinary people in the West now feel themselves to bethe liberal order’s victims rather than its beneficiaries.

The US commentator Fareed Zakaria disagreed sharply with Ferguson.The liberal order may be in crisis, Zakaria conceded, but despite its flaws, we are better off with it than without it. He went on to argue that its success in significantly reducing violence and poverty in the world shows unequivocally that no meaningful alternative to the liberal order is on offer. For Zakaria, the failure of Brexit and the resilience of the EU are proof that while “the arc of history bends slowly and with zig-zag ways and curves,” overall “it is moving towards a greater degree of freedom.”[4]

The majority of the predominantly young, liberal audience in Toronto found Zakaria’s arguments more persuasive than Ferguson’s. In other cities in the world, however, those places where violence and poverty persist, people would have been less convinced that the world is moving towards more freedom.

The post-Cold War version of the liberal order was characterized by four basic assumptions, none of which were, until recently, contested by the major powers. First, free trade is beneficial and economic interdependence is a source of security; second, individuals have rights simply by the fact of being human; third, democracy is as distinctive a feature of our world as air travel and the Internet; and fourth, existing international institutions provide a functional framework for resolving disputes about trade and politics without the use of force. All those four assumptions are now in question. They have been challenged intellectually and politically by states within and outside the West.

The question is, is hypocrisy the tribute that vice usually pays to virtue, or have accusations of hypocrisy become the instrument to destroy a West-dominated liberal order in the absence of a clear alternative to it?

Illiberal states like China and Russia contest the West’s domination but do so by violating the rules of the liberal order rather than by offering well-articulated normative alternatives.What is more, when it is in their interests illiberal statesposition themselves as defenders of international institutions and global goods instead of offering alternatives to them. The support of China and Russia for the Paris Climate Agreement, the WTO, and the Global Compact for Migration in the face of US oppositionis a case in point.

At the same time, liberal norms are being challenged within Western societies by rising populist parties and especially the Trump administration, which has defined America’s commitment to the liberal order as the country’s major vulnerability in the modern world. Once the liberal hegemon, the US has decided to preserve its power by overthrowing the liberal norms on which its hegemony was founded, and as a result Washington has taken up the rhetoric of “America First” tojustify its policies. In turn,it has redefined international politics as a zero-sum game. This radically changed international environment is especially a threat to the European Union.


How should the EU act and talk in such a situation, keeping in mind tha tas a supra-national political project the EU depends on the existence of the international liberal order, and that liberal internationalism and multilateralism is the EU’s mother tongue? How should the EU react to the escalating accusations of hypocrisy any time someone dares to speak about values? Can the EU and the West more generally preserve its universalism in times when its power is in a relative decline?

In the beginning of the 21st century, intoxicated by its own innovations, the EU tended to view its experience as a peaceful and post-national Great Power as a laboratory for the world to come. Europeans saw themselves as the future and others as the past.But in the last decade Europeans have gradually realised that, although the EU’s political model was admirable, it was unlikely to become universal or even spread to many in its immediate neighbourhood.

What some Europeans now forsee is a scenario similar to the recent fate of Japanese technology companies. A few years ago, these companies became aware that, although Japan made the best 3G phones in the world, they could not find a global market because the rest of the world could not catch up with the technological innovations to use these “perfect” devices. This became knownas Japan’s “Galapagos Syndrome.”[5] Rather than being too big to fail, Japan’s phones had become too perfect to succeed. A decade ago, it was Europe that was facing its “Galapagos moment.” It may be that Europe’s postmodern order has become so advanced and particular to its environment that it is impossible for others to follow it. It evolved in a protected ecosystem, shielded from the more muscular, “modern” world where most people live.

But after the rise of the populist parties in Europe, it became clear that even the “Galapagos explanation” had lost its power. The European model has lost its appeal not only outside of Europe but also for many within European society. What we are witnessing in Europe today is a change in the zeitgeist. If until yesterday the majority of Europeans were optimistic about the impact of globalization on their lives, now they fear the future of the globalized world. The initial euphoria born out of the fall of walls in 1989has been replaced by anxiety and demands for building new fences. The interdependence once heralded as the source of security has turned out to be the major source of insecurity.

It is the recognition of the fact that the post-Cold War order is over and that we are living in a new world that made us engage with the “Hypocrisy, Anti-Hypocrisy and the International Order” project. In the course of three years we visited Greece, Russia, Turkey, and the United States in an attempt to understand the sources of the current wave of accusations about the hypocrisy of the liberal order. We undertook our research on the assumption that the West’s hypocrisy is real. Western powers do rely on double standards. The US asks African leaders to accept the judgments of the International Criminal Court yet refuses to join it. Similarly, it’s hard to argue with President Putin’s claim that the UN resolution on Libya hardly authorized the West to oust Gaddafi from power. But while we have been perfectly aware of the inconsistency of the West’s foreign policy practices, we tended to view its double standards as a tragic fact of life rather than the West’s preferred strategy of rule after the end of the Cold War. At the same time, we harbor the strong suspicion that quite often critics of Western hypocrisy have been moved less by their devotion to liberal norms than by theirsingular desire to undermine them.

We have tried to understand a welter of issues. One is anti-hypocrisy rhetoric in Greece, an EU member-state, where the vast majority of the population believes the country was treated unfairly by the EU during the financial crisis. There’sTurkey, on the one hand torn apart by the willingness of a sizable part of society to see their country become a member of the EU, all the while facing the reluctance of many Europeans to accept a Muslim country like Turkey into the European Union, and on the other hand ruled bypoliticians who want the country to be a sovereign regional power. There’s Russia, where hypocrisy and double standards are seen as the essence of Western power, its way to rule the world, and where elites who once blamed themselves for being naïve in the 1990s now praise themselves for being masters of deception. And there’s the United States, led by a president who sees the country as the greatest victim of the liberal order it created.

In all these places, sensitivity about the hypocrisy of the liberal order is genuine and rather vocal. Differences between these places are also very clear. In Greece, anti-hypocrisy tirades have been not simply expressions of the disillusionment with other Europeans’ lack of solidarity but also a strategy for applyingpressure on Brussels. In Turkey, the never-ending accusation about the hypocrisy of the West has been an expression of deep resentment but also a strategy to blame the failure of Turkey’s EU accession solely on the Europeans. In Russia, anti-hypocrisy rhetoric reflects the genuine disappointment of elites with the way their country was treated in the post-Cold War period; at the same time, it is also the Kremlin’s strategy for delegitimizing the liberal order.

A visit to the US was not part of our initial plan, but the political changes there had a dramatic impact on our project, because while President Trump can be accused of many things, liberal hypocrisy is not one of them.

The weaponization of anti-hypocrisy

If the British political philosopher David Runciman is right, the idea of hypocrisy has its roots in the theatre.[6] The original “hypocrites” were classical stage actors, and the Greek term—hypokrisis— meant the playing of a part. The typical dictionary will define “hypocrisy” as “a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.” In short, a “hypocrite” is one who conceals his vices by masking them with sham virtues.

In her remarkable book Ordinary Vices, the American philosopher Judith Shklarinsists that we should not be so harshly critical of hypokrisis because it is a necessary element in any liberal society, in any society that talks values. In her view,it is also an unattractive but unavoidable feature of international relations. At the same time, criticizing hypocrisy is also tricky because in politics it is almost impossible to criticize hypocrisy without falling into the trap of playing the part one is also criticizing. When it comes to lying in international politics, says the University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, states lie to each other much less than we would expect.[7]And when it comes to foreign policy decisions, governments lie more often to their own people than to foreign governments. Mearsheimer observes that, contrary to our usual intuitions, democratic governments tend to lie more often than their authoritarian counterparts. The basic reason is that democratic governments, much more than authoritarian ones, need to secure public support for their foreign policy.

In order to grasp the radical way that anti-hypocrisy discourse functions today, we should remember that not long ago the West was the most prominent critic of hypocrisy in international politics. Americans and Europeans severely denounced authoritarian governments for signing treaties they did not intend to respect and for proclaiming loyalty to values they resented. But while European governments were quick to blame the hypocrisy of the newly converted, they also recognized that the very fact that authoritarian governments felt obliged to deliver a “liberal dialect” was one of the major achievements of the liberal order. In his recent book The Iron Cage of Liberalism, political scientist Daniel Ritter convincingly demonstrates that the authoritarian regimes that were the most closely connected to and supported by the West and which invested the most in faking democracy are the ones where unarmed revolutions were most likely to be successful.[8]

The post-Cold War era was a missionary world. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” was viewed as “an age of imitation” where Western liberal institutions were the only model worth imitating. But for countries like Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey or Iran, the age of imitation was the age of hypocrisy. In the last decade they have tended to accuse the West of the following:

  • Being arrogant by imposing its social and political model as the universal norm.
  • Using the language of liberal values in order to cover its hegemonic power ambitions.
  • Being selective in its criticism of illiberalism depending on the economic and military interests of the West.

Greeks and Turks are mostly outraged by the selective nature of West’s interference in defense of democracy or the EU’s financial rules. The Kremlin mostly resents the West’s use of liberal rhetoric for cover of its geopolitical interests. But with the passing of time both Moscow and Ankara have challenged the very claim of the West to present a universal norm that others should follow.

The hypocrisy of Western leaders, lecturing the world about high-minded values while actually being motivated by selfish geopolitical interests, has become one of Russia’s gnawing obsessions.  The so-called “liberal international order,” in Moscow’s view, was nothing nobler than a projection of America’s will to dominate the world.  Western universalism was just a false front for Western particularism. America, in particular, disguised the enlargement of its sphere of influence as an expansion of the frontiers of freedom. What the West celebrated as popular democratic revolutions were simply Western-sponsored coups d’état.

While anti-hypocrisy rhetoric has its legitimate arguments, it is one of our major findings that the weaponization of anti-hypocrisy rhetoric is partially responsible for the current miserable state of international affairs. There is a sharp distinction between exposing hypocrisy to uphold a value (what we saw in Greece) and exposing hypocrisy to destroy a value (what we saw in Russia).

What the current crusaders against hypocrisy tend to miss is that hypocrisy is often a technique of conflict avoidance. We hide beliefs that can be mutually offensive and insulting. Hence, attacks on hypocrisy are often invitations to conflict; anti-hypocrisy can even be a declaration of war.

Focused on the West’s hypocrisy, Russia has fatally eroded thetrust between Russia and the West. In the Kremlin’s view, hypocrisy is the skeleton key for unlocking Western foreign policy.

Alternative explanations for the West’s failures to live up to its own ideals—such as poor planning, muddling through,naivety, self-deception,and lack of coordination on the Western side—are strategically downplayed in order to underscore America’s principled bad faith. Unmasking hypocrisy implicitly attributes malicious intentions to the adversary. Distinguishing public justifications from hidden motivations is only common sense. But focusing dogmatically and obsessively on this distinction, as Russia seems to do, makes it impossible to arrive at any sensible policy directed at reducing tensions and re-building trust between Russia and the West.

By relying on the exposure of an enemy’s hypocrisy to justify one’s own aggressive acts, one can attack the existing world order without offering any positive alternative. Butthis is not a formula for a sober foreign policy based on proper understanding of the actions and motivations of the other side. Instead, it increases the risks of dangerous accidents.

The weaponization of anti-hypocrisy erodes the normative base of the liberal order not by offering an alternative normative order, which was the case in the days of the Cold War, but by hollowing out the very possibility of values-based foreign policy.

In this sense, it is interesting to compare President Putin’s and President Trump’s criticisms of US post-Cold War foreign policy. Both of them are fierce critics of this policy, but the nature of their criticism differs. Whereas Putin accused President George W. Bush ofinvading Iraq for power reasons while talking democracy promotion, Trump accuses Bush of invading Iraq for a self-delusional idea— liberatingthe Iraqi people—instead of simply grabbing Iraqi oil.

The EU as a monastery

What should be the policy of any state actor that wants to preserve the normative power of the liberal values in a world in which illiberal great powers have weaponized “Western hypocrisy” and the current American administration considers the language of values to be a sign of stupidity and weakness? How should the EU act and speak in this new world, in which others accuse you of hypocrisy not because they want you to stand for your values but because they despise these values.

The strategy most popular with European leaders today is twofold: first, to ignore the illiberal turn, to treat it as an aberration and wait for America to make a u-turn back to its liberal self once Trump is out of office; and second, to bet on the exhaustion of the attractiveness of the illiberal actors. In our view, this strategy is a risky one. We have many reasons to believe that even after Trump leaves office, the US will not embrace its role as the leader of the liberal world and the guarantor of the liberal system. What is even more important, the US would face many constraints playing this role because, in the eyes of many, Trump has severely damaged the American brand. As a 2019 survey commissioned by ECFR indicates, the US is perceived as a security threat rather than as an ally by a sizable part of European societies. More Germans and Austrians fear the US than Russia or China.

The EU’s strategy for adjusting to the new savage world is also doomed to fail if it tries to turn itself into an alliance of twenty-seven sovereign national states who speak the language of narrownational interests. The EU can’t function as anilliberal project. It can’t speak the language of national interest in the way that a traditional national state could. Liberalism is the EU’s native language. And even the big EU member states are too small to exercise real influence on a global level.

In our view, the only way for the EU to survive as a liberal actor in an increasingly illiberal environment is by transforming itself from a missionary who wants to shape the world in his own image, to a monastery that is focused on protecting the very exceptional nature of its political project. We are aware that “monstery’ is a particularly tricky metaphor to apply to the most secular part of the world. It is also tricky because there are is a large variety of monasteries around the world. And it is tricky because the intellectual crisis of contemporary liberalism makes it counter-productive to position yourself as the guardian of yesterday’s world .A liberal monastery would need some new saints. Second, monasteries have enclosures, and the question of the relationship of Europe with the rest of the world raises a host of difficult questions, not only about the role of borders, but also about the role of power. Can monasteries prosper if they are not protected by power? And can they maintain the belief in the validity of their exceptional rule without the ambition to make it less exceptional? But for us, the metaphor of the monastery is attractive because it allows the Europeans to hope to change the world by acting and speaking differently in the world. The monastery is a missionary who waits for its time to come again.

What would such a strategy look like?

When the EU raises human rights issues in its conversations with China, it should make its expectations clear:it is not trying to change China’s attitudes but instead preserve the EU’s own exceptional nature. In this sense, China’s behavior in the first post-communist decades could be an interesting model to follow. China accommodated itself to many of the global trends that shaped the post-Cold War world, but it defended the role of Marxist language and the Communist Party in China as a way to preserve its state identity. In the post-communist decades, China acted with the full awareness that some of the assumptions it has believed in had turned out to be wrong, but at the same time it made Chinese communism the defining characteristic of its exceptionalism. The EU should do the same regarding liberalism. We could be destroyed if we act as a guardian of the status quo that does not exist any more, but we should make liberalism Europe’s defining characteristic, regardless of what happens in the US.

In other words, if until now the EU was very much colored by the idea of the universality of its values and institutions, in the future it should sharply stress its exceptionalism. If before it was proud of the undefined nature of its borders, now it will have to fix its borders. The distinctive nature of amonastery is that while it hopes to influence the world beyond its door, it is aware that it lives in a different normative space than the outside world. It is insulated from the world, and there is a clear border between being inside the monastery and being outside of it. To focus on the exceptional nature of the EU is the only strategy that would sustain the internal cohesion of the union while at the same time acting as an alternative to growing illiberal trends.

The EU should define itself as a monastery within the world of sin, a monastery that is economically and even militarily powerful enough to preserve its autonomous role and way of life, but one that tries to transform others only through the example of its very existence.

[1] Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Tear off the Masks! Identity and Impose in Twentieth Century Russia”, Princeton University Press, 2005,  p. 3.

[2]On 19 December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the Global Compact of Migration through a vote. 152 countries voted in favor of the resolution to endorse it, while the United States, Hungary, Israel, Czech Republic and Poland voted against it. 12 countries abstained from the vote.


[3]Niall Ferguson versus Fareed Zakaria: Is the Liberal International Order Over?, Munk Debates, April 28, 2017

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifGxnlu94hQ; https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/Future-of-Geopolitics

[4]Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, “The End of the Liberal Order?”,Oneworld Publications, 2017.

[5] Hiroko Tabuchi, “Why Japan’s Cellphones Haven’t Gone Global”, theNew York Times, 19 July 2009, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/technology/20cell.html.

[6]David Runciman, “Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond”, Princeton University Press, 2010.

[7]John J. Mearsheime, “Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics”, Oxford University Press, 2013.

[8] Daniel Ritter, “The Iron Cage of Liberalism. International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa”, Oxford University Press, 2014.