John Mearsheimer's new book, Why Leaders Lie, catalogs the lies nations tell each other.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 14 2011 10:35 AM

Diplomacy and Duplicity

John Mearsheimer's new book catalogs the kinds of lies nations tell each other.

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Imagine if every head of state woke up tomorrow with an inability to lie, like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. In this thought experiment, the United States would be worse off. Not because it lies that often—it does not—but because it depends on the lies of other countries. With interests that span the globe, the United States has no choice but to deal with unrepresentative governments, particularly in the Middle East. In a country where people recoil at the thought of their government secretly helping the Americans, Washington benefits from foreign leaders keeping their citizens in the dark.

Double-dealing is a tricky gambit. Political scientist Robert D. Putnam has likened the foreign policy process to playing two board games at the same time, each at a different table. Sitting at the table that represents domestic politics are advisers, union leaders, rival politicians, and so on. (In autocracies, a combination of generals, relatives, and radicals might take their place.) The second table represents international politics, and gathered around it are other heads of state. The challenge for the leader shuttling between the two is to make moves that satisfy those at the domestic table while fending off threats at the international table. The game becomes much easier if foreign policy decisions are obscured from the domestic audience. A ruler who says yes to the United States without being labeled a stooge can enhance his position internationally while holding on to power at home.

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But although Mearsheimer does not say so, duplicity is becoming harder to practice. Call it the audience differentiation problem: Leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to send one message to foreign powers while telling their own people something else. Advances in communications technology and democratic representation have steadily accelerated the free flow of information and tied the hands of governments hoping to dam it.

The day-by-day erosion of the Yemeni government's narrative monopoly is a case study in the difficulties of media management in a modern-day autocracy. The day of the airstrikes, ABC News, citing Obama administration officials, exposed Washington's role. A Yemeni opposition party's Web site soon picked up the story, while Al Jazeera interviewed witnesses who said they saw U.S. aircraft conducting surveillance around the site and ran footage of what appeared to be American-made artillery shells, a theory later corroborated by photographs released online by Amnesty International. When the WikiLeaks cables came out—one year after the strikes—America's hand in Yemen's counterterrorism policy was widely known. By contrast, it took more than 30 years for the truth to come out about Kennedy's Turkish missile deal. Such a feat seems impossible today.

This is partly good news, since governments will find it harder to bamboozle their people into accepting bad policies. "Whenever leaders cannot sell a policy to their public in a rational-legal manner," Mearsheimer writes, "there is a good chance that the problem is with the policy, not the audience." But what if the problem is with the audience? Most people would prefer, for example, that Yemen lie to its people and let the United States fight al-Qaida than cave to public opinion and call off the operations. Yes, the endangered status of the international lie represents a victory for American values like democratic representation, open government, and free speech. But for American interests, it may count as a loss.

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Stuart A. Reid is an associate editor atForeign Affairsmagazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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