Known Unknowns or Known Lies?

Of course there is duplicity in IR. But there is also uncertainty, and it is easy to confuse the two.
By: /
July 17, 2012
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Seeing the theme of the CIC’s series, “Diplomacy and Duplicity,” I can’t resist quoting the line from Casablanca about gambling at Rick’s: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” Of course there is duplicity in international relations. There is also, however, uncertainty, and it is often easy to confuse the two. As former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld famously said,

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

He was absolutely right, but he was also lying through his teeth. That is, international relations is often quite complex, so one can make an educated guess or a calculated gamble that turns out to be wrong. On such occasions, it may look like duplicity when there was no effort to lie. However, Rumsfeld was using this line to justify the war against Iraq at a time when the U.S. had exerted a great deal of effort to detect weapons-of-mass-destruction programs in Iraq and found none. Still, Rumsfeld does us a service by reminding us that uncertainty and duplicity can be confused, and can also be related. Perhaps the more uncertain we are, the greater the temptation to appear more confident than we are.

Instead of listing the lies that are told (which the CIC has already presented), let me categorize the kinds of deceptions that frequently occur in international relations.[1]


  • Wishful Thinking: When one deceives oneself because of the pursuit of a desired outcome. Those arguing that intervention in Syria would be relatively easy are fooling themselves because they care so much about the damage Assad is doing to his society.

  • Incredible Commitments: When countries sign an agreement that is utterly unenforceable, and whose promises are unlikely to be kept. The recent agreement between Afghanistan and the donor community is a good example. There is little in this agreement that actually binds anyone.

  • Concealed Consent: When countries object about an activity while actually letting that activity take place. Pakistan’s criticism of the U.S. drone strikes exemplifies this, as Pakistan has an air force that is quite capable of shooting down the drones. This tactic is often used when a process is unpopular at home.

  • Displacing Blame: Politicians will often focus the blame for costly political reforms upon international organizations that “made” them do it. While there are costs to acting against the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund, for example, a leader can always say no to an outside actor. It may be costly, but there is still a choice.

  • Hands Are Tied: Leaders often use domestic politics as an excuse not to compromise internationally. Like displacing blame, the reality is that politicians often have more room to manoeuvre but will cite domestic obstacles to force the other side of the bargaining process to give in. This is where the U.S. Congress comes in mighty handy: Any American president can say to a Canadian prime minister that his hands are tied. Only during a minority government can a Canadian PM use the same tactic. Election years have a similar effect.

  • Conditionality Contretemps: Countries and institutions, such as the EU or NATO, often set up conditions for membership, but the reality is that countries will be admitted if they have enough friends inside the organization and will not if they don’t.

  • Coherence Confusion: No organization or country is really a unitary actor. Instead, they are composites of individuals and groups. We tend to think about actors that are actually far less unified in reality, that have different units acting against each other, or at least not in step with each other. We then blame the organization or country for lying, or for failing to meet its commitments, when it simply could not control all of its members/agents. We tend to make this mistake more about other countries than about ourselves.

International relations is confusing and confounding (a good thing for me, since I am a professor of international affairs and business is good). Not all surprise or consternation is the result of others lying to us. Much of it is the result of us lying to ourselves or of seeing more certainty than exists in an uncertain world.  To be sure, there are plenty of incentives to misrepresent. As politicians have to play two games at all times – one with other countries and one with their own publics – they will be both tempted and compelled to dissemble somewhat to finesse the conflicting imperatives. How much of this is persuasion versus deception often depends on a “certain point of view.”[2]


[1] For the classic take on misperceptions in international politics from which I am borrowing heavily, see Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.

[2] As illustrated here.