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Does It Matter That Trump Is a Liar?

World leaders have never really trusted each other—but the president's behavior undermines American foreign policy anyway.

A man dressed as Pinocchio holds a sign during a protest march against the US president and the Belgian Prime Minister in the city center of Brussels on May 24, 2017. (BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)
A man dressed as Pinocchio holds a sign during a protest march against the US president and the Belgian Prime Minister in the city center of Brussels on May 24, 2017. (BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the Washington Post, as of Aug. 1, U.S. President Donald Trump had made more than 4,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president, an average of roughly 7.6 per day. What’s even more remarkable about Trump is that his lies aren’t even very creative, plausible, or hard to expose: He lies even when the lie is patently absurd and easy to expose. Just consider his latest big whopper: the bizarre claim that nearly 3,000 people didn’t really die as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. According to our self-absorbed and truth-challenged president, the death toll was a fabrication made up by Democrats solely to make him look bad. Poor baby.

But does it really matter if Trump lies as easily as you or I draw breath? In particular, does it really undermine his ability to conduct foreign policy? Until recently, I’ve thought (and written) that this simply had to be the case. And so have a number of other well-known scholars, such as Princeton University’s Keren Yarhi-Milo. The obvious fear was that given Trump’s proven track record of deceit, neither allies nor adversaries would believe a word he said. As a result, America’s ability to craft favorable agreements with others—and especially deals that might involve some degree of trust—would be critically impaired.

But perhaps I was too hasty. As I thought back to one of the few books written on the broader subject of lying in international politics—my former colleague and sometime co-author John Mearsheimer’s provocative Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics—I began to wonder if I was right. It’s a fascinating little book, and it makes an intriguingly counterintuitive set of arguments that are directly relevant to understanding the impact of Trump’s compulsive mendacity.

Mearsheimer argues that while international politics may be a nasty, competitive, dog-eat-dog struggle between self-interested states, there is surprisingly little deliberate lying between governments. He does not say that leaders never lie to each other, and he freely acknowledges that governments routinely spin the truth, offer favorable interpretations of it, omit inconvenient facts, and in general manipulate information in order to advance their aims. But leaders rarely tell each other baldfaced lies; that is, they rarely make statements that they know to be untrue in order to mislead their interlocutors.

Why not? Because in the highly competitive world of international politics, no sensible leader will take another leader’s statements or assurances at face value. Trust is scarce in foreign policy, and therefore most leaders will check up on what a foreign counterpart is telling them before they accept and act upon it. And the knowledge that others will be skeptical and look for independent verification removes most of the incentive to lie: If you know that everything you say is going to get checked out and that any lies you do tell will probably be detected and exposed, why bother?

By contrast, Mearsheimer finds that both democratic and authoritarian leaders routinely lie to their own publics. Indeed, they are much more likely to lie to their own people than they are to each other. Populations are far more trusting—a cynic would say “gullible”—and a leader’s pronouncements can be amplified by the apparatus of the state, by tame media lapdogs, and by the awe and respect that many citizens feel for those in high places. In point of fact, leaders of all kinds enjoy impressive rhetorical advantages when it comes to hoodwinking the public, and as Trump is proving daily, some percentage of the population is likely to believe them no matter what they say.

Even in a fully functioning democracy with a free press and competitive politics, leaders can get away with lying (not to mention “spinning” and other lesser forms of deception), because the people rarely have access to as much information as the government does. This asymmetry is especially pronounced in foreign and defense policy, where much of what the public knows stems directly from government sources or is based on classified information that leaders can leak, withhold, doctor, or misrepresent. Because hardly any ordinary citizens have access to the latest intelligence about the Taliban, know a lot about the inner workings of NAFTA, or keep tabs on conditions in Ukraine, it is easy for a president to paint a false version of reality and hard for others to challenge it.

This information asymmetry explains how President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others could use lies about Saddam Hussein, his (fictitious) weapons of mass destruction, and his wholly imaginary links to al Qaeda to convince a majority of Americans that up was in fact down.

The bottom line is that leaders have little incentive to lie when dealing with foreign powers, because nobody will believe them anyway and lies will soon be exposed. But they have a big incentive to lie when dealing with their own publics—if only to stay popular—and they are much more likely to get away with it, especially when the subject is foreign policy.

These insights suggest a somewhat different take on how Trump’s deceitful nature might affect his ability to conduct foreign policy. As noted above, no sensible leader will take Trump’s assurances or even his factual statements at face value, given the long track record of lies he’s piled up as a private citizen and now as president. But if Mearsheimer is right, most governments weren’t going to take Trump’s statements at face value anyway, even if he had shown himself to be as honest and principled as former Presidents Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama. (And no, I’m not saying that Carter and Obama told the whole truth 100 percent of the time either. But seriously: They were rank amateurs at deception when compared to Trump).

Moreover, for all of his mercurial, insulting, bombastic, and self-indulgent tweeting, it’s not as if Trump hasn’t acted pretty much as we should have expected. He was and is skeptical of NATO, even if he has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment there several times. He was and is opposed to the current trading system, and he has retained his bizarre fixation on trade surpluses as a (the?) critical indicator of economic health. He was and is a xenophobe and possibly a racist who is committed to keeping foreigners out and keeping America as white as possible. He remains utterly indifferent to human rights issues save as a club to brandish at adversaries, and he has long been remarkably comfortable with dictators. And Trump hasn’t wavered in his belief that the Iran nuclear agreement was “the worst deal ever,” even if that belief is unfounded. So, while nobody should believe a word Trump says, it’s not like he became president and suddenly changed his tune. Foreign leaders will therefore pay less attention to what he says and concentrate instead on what he does.

So, have I persuaded you that Trump’s lies don’t matter? Have I even persuaded myself?

Alas, not really.

Nobody expects politicians to tell the truth all of the time, but having a compulsive fabulist in the White House damages U.S. foreign policy in at least four ways.

First, it makes all Americans look dumber in the eyes of the rest of the world. They see a country where nearly half of voters in 2016 bought his flimflam and didn’t care a whit about his chronic deceptions and misdeeds. One of our two main political parties continues to tolerate his various misdeeds, and the Republican Party seems as rapturous about Trump as ever. Why should any country listen to advice from a society that could elect this man—even allowing for the fact that the popular vote favored his opponent—and could easily go on to elect him again in 2020?

Second, and following from the first point, Trump’s behavior as liar-in-chief sacrifices the moral high ground. Even a good realist like me thinks there are important differences between countries where leaders are held accountable, the rule of law is robust, and foreign policy is (mostly) reality-based and countries where leaders act with impunity and define for their subjects what sorts of beliefs are permissible and what sort of knowledge constitutes “truth.” I’d be the first to argue that the United States has often fallen short of its own ideals—especially in the hubristic “unipolar era”—but it is one thing to fall short and another to toss those ideals right out the window. Once you have a president who doesn’t care about truth at all and who works overtime to discredit any individual, organization, or agency that disagrees with him, and once that sort of behavior is normalized and legitimated within the body politic, then there’s not a lot of daylight left between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, or all the other authoritarian regimes.

Third, once rampant dishonesty and the corruption of discourse is sufficiently advanced, public trust goes down and bad behavior (to include lying) is no longer deterred by the fear of public shame and subsequent discredit. If Trump can lie nonstop and get away with it, everyone else will start doing it too. Apart from the obvious dangers of trying to run a society where the very concept of “truth” is no longer accepted, this situation will force the country to adopt ever more restrictive laws and regulations to try to keep individual mendacity in check. When honesty is prized, liars are shunned, and corruption is less common, you don’t need as many formal rules, because most people will be reluctant to risk shame and ostracism by violating the informal ones. But when liars and cheaters get off scot-free, then you have to expect everyone to cheat, and lawmakers have to keep trying to corral bad behavior by codifying every type of misconduct. Ironically, the thicket of government regulations that conservatives now decry is in part the result of the long-term decline in public morality here in the United States. It didn’t start with Trump, but he has taken it to a new level.

Lastly, Trump’s penchant for lying is still likely to damage his ability to conduct effective diplomacy. Leaders whom he has already lied to—such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—are bound to resent it personally and therefore will be less inclined to do Trump (or the United States) any favors in the future. Citizens of other countries will resent it too, making it harder for their leaders to cooperate with the United States even when those leaders might like to. And even if all states tend to view one another’s pledges with a certain skepticism, there will also be some cases where the United States gets help from others in part because a foreign leader believed that the president was telling the truth.

As Charles de Gaulle famously responded during the Cuban missile crisis, when former Secretary of State Dean Acheson offered to show him reconnaissance photos confirming the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, de Gaulle waved him away and said, “the word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”

Were he alive today, I rather doubt that de Gaulle would say the same thing.

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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