World leader can lie to each other with general impunity, but they do so far less than you’d imagine. Lying to your own public about foreign policy does have feedback loops — at least when it backfires.
Although lying is widely viewed as reprehensible behavior in ordinary life, it is acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people. Nevertheless, there is actually not much lying between states. …
Furthermore, leaders appear to be more likely to lie to their own people about foreign policy issues than to other countries. …
[T]here are good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to their publics as well as to other countries. These practical logics almost always override well-known and widely accepted moral strictures against lying. Indeed, leaders sometimes think that they have a moral duty to lie to protect their country. Leaders do not always lie about foreign policy, of course, but they occasionally say things or purposely imply things that they know are not true. Their publics usually do not punish them for their deceptions, however, unless they lead to bad results. It seems clear that leaders and their publics believe that lying is an integral part of international relations.
In domestic politics, however, lying is generally considered wrong, save for some special circumstances, such as when individuals are bargaining over the price at which they would buy or sell a house, or when protecting an innocent person from wrongful harm. Most people consider “white lies” that friends tell one another—as when dinner guests praise an ill-cooked meal, or that parents tell their children to protect them—permissible. After all, these sorts of lies involve small stakes and they are told for someone else’s benefit. They are altruistic lies. But on the whole, lying is widely seen to have a corrupting effect on individuals as well as the broader society in which they live. It is not surprising, therefore, that people often tell the truth even when it is not in their material interest to do so. This is not to deny that there is a good deal of lying of the unacceptable sort in every society. Still, the less of that there is the better. Thus, it makes good sense to stigmatize and discourage lying on the home front.
There is a simple explanation for these different attitudes toward domestic and international lying. A leader has no higher obligation than to ensure the survival of his country. Yet states operate in an anarchic system where there is no higher authority that they can turn to if they are seriously threatened by another state. In the harsh world of international politics, there is no 911 number to call if a state gets in trouble, and even if there were, there is nobody at the other end to pick up the phone. Thus, leaders and their publics understand that states operate in a self-help world where they have to do whatever is necessary to provide for their own security. If that means lying and cheating, so be it. International politics, in other words, tends to be a realm where rules are often broken with little consequence. This is not to say that leaders are enthusiastic about telling lies or to deny that many leaders would prefer to see the international realm governed by a well-defined set of moral principles. But that is not feasible in the absence of a common sovereign to enforce them.
In contrast to the international system, the structure of a state is hierarchic, not anarchic. In a well-ordered state, there is a higher authority—the state itself—to which individuals can turn for protection. Consequently, the incentives to cheat and lie that apply when states are dealing with each other usually do not apply to individuals within a state. Indeed, a strong case can be made that widespread lying threatens the inner life of a state. It does so in good part for purely utilitarian reasons, as it is hard to make a state function efficiently when people lie to each other all the time. One can also make a moral case against lying within the confines of a state, because a well-defined community usually exists there, which is not the case in international politics.
… Politics is an especially fertile breeding ground for spinning and concealing. A president can tell a story about the state of the American economy that accentuates the positive trends and downplays or even ignores the negative ones, while a critic from the opposing party is free to do the opposite. But neither individual is allowed to lie to make his case. Indeed, getting caught in a lie would probably do them significant political harm.
That is not true, however, if a foreign-policy issue is at stake. Statesmen and diplomats are rarely punished for lying, especially if they were telling lies to other countries. Probably the only exception to this rule involves cases where it becomes known that a leader lied to his fellow citizens about a policy that failed in ways that obviously damage the national interest. But even here, the main reason that a leader would likely incur his public’s wrath is because the policy failed, not because he lied. Of course, this is why a leader who is discovered to have lied to his public about a particular policy is unlikely to pay much of a political price if it works as intended. When it comes to foreign policy, success excuses lying, or at least makes it tolerable.
One more interesting point: “Remember, the leaders who are most likely to lie to their publics are those who head democracies bent on fighting wars of choice in distant places.”