Lying in International Politics
March 31, 2006 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Lying in International Politics is a 2004 speech given by John J. Mearsheimer which reminded me of yesterday's post on but controveral but well spoken Michael Ignatieff. Mearsheimer argues that...
" lying takes four forms. Inter-state lying is where states lie to each other to gain strategic advantage. Fear-mongering is where foreign policy elites lie to their own public because they believe that the people do not recognize the seriousness of an external threat and they need to be motivated to deal with it. Nationalist myth-making is where elites tell lies about their state’s history to help foster a powerful sense of national identity among all segments of society. Anti-realist lying is where elites attempt to disguise brutal behavior carried out in pursuit of realist (or other) goals, because it conflicts with widely-accepted liberal norms." (more...)
(Mearsheimer has recently been covered on mefi on a more controversial subject.)
posted by bhouston (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is an awesome article. You've got to love an academic who writes about lying in international politics and calls himself an "offensive realist."

He's an interesting guy - he has a remarkably bleak view of international relations, but he takes no pleasure in it, unlike some other realists, who seem to revel in the violent, anarchic world order.
posted by Dasein at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2006

Mearsheimer has a calm head on his shoulders as well as the guts for dealing with subjects that are purposely obfusticated. His straight shouting analyses reminds me of those produced by realist Zbigniew Brzezinski. I am so tired of the rhetoric-based "analyses" of US foreign policy in so many of the influential magazines (include the writings of Michael Ignatieff.)
posted by bhouston at 3:08 PM on March 31, 2006

I wouldn't necessarily call Ignatieff's writings rhetoric-based. Are you applying that label simply because he may explain or justify actions in non-realist (i.e. non-cynical) terms? If so, I'm not sure that's fair. After all, analyses that look at ideology as a motivating factor (whether liberal, neo-conservative, whatever) may capture something that a the power-based analysis of realists doesn't quite capture.

But I'd be interested to hear what it was in Ignatieff's speech that made you think of Mearsheimer.
posted by Dasein at 3:12 PM on March 31, 2006

It wasn't his speech the other day but rather the only major essay of his that I have read. That essay, Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?, came across in many areas to be intentionally misleading in order to allow US liberals to feel better about themselves and about US' preemptive attack on Iraq. To be explicit, the connection to Mearsheimer's "Lying in International Politics" talk is my interpretation of this essay of Ignatieff as being a relatively decent example of "nationalist myth-making" combined with "anti-realist lying."
posted by bhouston at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2006

Okay, I can see the connection, but is it lying if you really believe it? That is to say, I think Ignatieff is sincere in his beliefs. He may buy into certain myths or ideas that you think are totally bogus, but what he's doing seems fundamentally different than what Mearsheimer is describing, which is political leaders lying to their citizens to make them feel better. I acknowledge that these things aren't always clear-cut - sometimes the leaders themselves might believe some of what they say - but basically I think there is a subjective difference between what Mearsheimer's talking about and what you can pin on Ignatieff, no matter how much you disagree with him.
posted by Dasein at 3:45 PM on March 31, 2006

It's a pretty good analysis, but I have my quibbles.

Neither the job candidate nor the presidential contenders, however, is allowed to lie to make his case. Indeed, telling a lie would almost certainly do them significant harm.

Telling a lie that is discovered. The job candidate hopes they won't check his references, and that he'll have the job and maybe even be gone before the lie is uncovered. The presidential contender hopes to get to the next election without the lie being discovered.

Telling lies is considered unacceptable behavior in most walks of life, save for international politics, where it is viewed as a regrettable but necessary element of daily life.

I think he seriously misses something here. The current administration certainly believes that lies to the American people are "regrettable but necessary". Actually, I'm not sure they believe they're regrettable. It started with the energy task force, it continued with 9/11, and then Iraq.

the three forms of deception -- lying, spinning, and concealment

While I suspect he might say that spinning covers this, I think he missed an important fourth form: bullshit.

Bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all. Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

It's true that his examples are more mechanical, but he uses them to reach for a psychosocial theory of lying, so this is a valid competitive approach.

In particular, the victim can ask if there is information available on the relevant subject, and he can expect to be told the truth.

It's clear he means that the victim can expect to be told the truth, and act accordingly if he believes he has not been given the truth. In reality, there's no reason for the victim to generally expect to be told the truth, because even the best governments have lapses in transparency. But expecting to be told the truth is an important characteristic of democracy, as is the appropriate follow-up behavior.

In short, the public might be prone to some combination of ignorance, stupidity, and cowardice. When that happens, according to this logic, the elites have to light a fire under their people so that they rise up to meet the challenge.

Again, here he is describing the world-view of the liar. I hope he doesn't think that no possibility exists that the threat itself is essentially a lie. But he only chooses examples (e.g. Nazi Germany) where the lies involved would only be ones of scale. It also looks like -- extneding this point -- there's an implicit assumption that the survival of the state really is at risk, and thus is the motivator for the elites to lie.

Third, and most importantly, elites who engage in fear-mongering invariably believe that their assessment of the basic nature of the threat is correct, even if they are lying on the particulars.

Additionally, there's a clear historical precedent that the American people (the example I know best) are willing to essentially forgive based on a kind of "good faith" or "best intentions" test. Reagan suffered little due to Iran-contra, by this analysis, because he was seen as essentially "fighting city hall" -- Congress -- on a policy matter. The same element of forgiveness seems to be at work regarding the NSA wiretaps and much of the Iraq intelligence. The tie-in to Mearsheimer is that the lies of this type, while temporarily damaging, in the long run are something that the elites can consider to eventually be forgiven for, a kind of "So what?" defense.

Fear-mongering ... is more likely in democracies than autocracies, because elites are more beholden to public opinion in democracies... the more autocratic or the more firmly the autocrat’s grip on his society, the less likely the need for fearmongering.

I'm very skeptical of this particular point. There is clear evidence that autocracies up and down history have used fear-mongering as a means to overcome populist distrust of the elite. Autocracies are even known to fear-monger about internal threats as a means of enforcing (on the face) ideological purity and (probably in reality) loyalty. So I think this is a weak point.

An enemy on the doorstep is likely to be seen and feared by all

Maybe this is his "out", but I don't think it really serves.

if the lying is pervasive enough in a society, it might alienate the public to the point where it undermines political support for democracy itself.

Ironically, one can easily see, then, how lying serves the purpose of those who are troubled by too much democracy.

Inter-state lying does not have a significant downside.

Uh, he says this right after he discussed downsides such as increased transaction costs (q.v. Reagan's "Trust, but verify").

This is why hardly anyone is ever punished when they are caught engaging in inter-state lying.

Actually, that isn't the case at all. Nation-states protect (and forgive) those who lie on their behalf. There is no enforcement body for inter-state lying, except the success or failure of the states themselves -- which is the explanation of the first part. Here Mearsheimer is engaging in a serious category error.

states largely discount past behavior when dealing with issues that involve their survival, and thus a damaged reputation is usually not a serious price to pay for getting caught in a lie

I think this is flat-wrong, or at least Realist myopia.

However, it is also possible -- maybe even likely -- that the public is reasonably intelligent and responsible, and that the reason the elites are having difficulty making their case in the face of public doubts is that they are pushing a wrongheaded policy.

Ah! Finally we get this admission, but only in the context of domestic policy. As a Realist, Mearsheimer clearly believes that the Platonic Realist position on a given issue can never be wrong(headed). Unpopular, yes, but wrong, never.

If they had sound arguments, they would be able to defend them in the marketplace of ideas and not have to deceive the public. In such circumstances, the government’s policy is likely to have bad consequences.

Yes indeedy, because while nation-states can be treated like board-game entities, peoples tend to be a little less predictable. Again, we're seeing his worldview pretty clearly here.

First, there is a considerable amount of lying in international relations and there are usually good strategic reasons for it.

I guess he really does believe it. While Realism has great salience to foreign policy, there are serious reasons to second-guess it, and this is the key one -- the belief that one is acting in a Realist sense is self-reinforcing.

Third, fear-mongering is the most dangerous form of lying. It not only threat to damage the body politic by fostering a culture of dishonesty, but it is the most likely of the four kinds of lying to produce a foreign-policy debacle.

I don't have any real problem with this, but I don't think that he's produced this conclusion by cornering it (and elimination of other causes). In fact, he largely defended lying of the non-fear-mongering variety as having "little consequence". I think this is fundamentally wrong. Realists prefer to deride other political philosophies as non-Realist, but there are good arguments that pursuing idealism for its own sake can have a Realist justification (at least, if one takes the long view). I think this last sentence of his is the very reason for doing so, in fact. If a foreign policy philosophy sanctions, nay, encourages lying, in the long run it can only foster increased lying and acceptance thereof. Thus, lying can only be seen as an expedient and short-term choice.

The key question for readers here is: Which do you view as paramount, the survival of the nation-state, or the survival of democracy? Realism is only concerned with the former.
posted by dhartung at 3:46 PM on March 31, 2006

> Nationalist myth-making is where elites tell lies about their state’s history to help
> foster a powerful sense of national identity among all segments of society.

So how old do these myths have to get to become cool, like the Ramayana, so that junior Joseph Campbells collect them in well-reviewed coffee table books you lay out to display your polyculturalism?

posted by jfuller at 3:48 PM on March 31, 2006

Dasein, have you ever read "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability" by Amy Chu? It is quite a good argument about how democracy and free markets are best introduced slowly and via domestic means rather than imposed on countries via external actors -- although she does mention that the imposition of democracy and free markets can be beneificial to the external actors that are doing the imposing. But it is true that I am cynical these days about international politics -- I view most of it as being solidly grounded in realist justifications although sold in idealistic terms when necessary.
posted by bhouston at 4:29 PM on March 31, 2006

No, I haven't seen that book. I'll take a look at it when I have some time in the summer, thanks.
posted by Dasein at 12:27 PM on April 1, 2006

jfuller - i would guess that happens when the culture in question has no or little political power.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:44 PM on April 1, 2006

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