This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness.

The only way this kind of apology makes sense to me is as an apology for making it harder to hypocritically affect that one doesn’t know exactly what is going on. Hayden is apologizing because the US has made it impossible for Germany hypocritically to pretend that it doesn’t know that the US is spying on it. A la Hayden, Merkel now has to affect a public outrage that she doesn’t feel, because not being publically outraged would seem indecent to German voters, and might furthermore make other states think that she’s a pushover. The logic of Hayden’s argument is that Merkel, like a complaisant political spouse who privately knows about her/his husband’s or her/his wife’s infidelities and doesn’t really care, needs to feign outrage so as to preserve face.

Hayden’s analysis is likely rather self-serving (it wouldn’t surprise me if Merkel were genuinely upset, and certainly many Germans are upset). It does point to the value of thinking systematically about hypocrisy in international politics in ways that most post-Snowden commentary doesn’t (admittedly, I’ve got international hypocrisy on the brain – my colleague Martha Finnemore and I are thinking a lot about it). Nearly every piece of US commentary I’ve seen about European reactions to the Snowden scandal stresses European hypocrisy. Next-to-nearly every piece of commentary quotes that bloody “shocked, shocked” bit from Casablanca, as if the analogy weren’t already hopelessly overused.

Of course, international politics is suffused with hypocrisy. What’s interesting about Hayden’s apology, if my interpretation is even half-right, is that it conforms to most of the tropes, but implicitly acknowledges that the previous European tolerance of US spying was equally hypocritical. The logic of Hayden’s argument (which he may not care to follow through himself) is that there are different kinds of hypocrisy, with different consequences for US power. Sometimes hypocritical relations of pretending not to know what is happening break down, and give way to public recriminations. The latter may be equally hypocritical, but have different consequences for other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the US on various forms of information sharing. By getting caught, the US has put itself in a worse position, moving other states from a form of hypocrisy that overlooked US excesses, to one where some Europeans at least are becoming hypersensitive to US surveillance. That, plausibly, is a significant change.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.