Ranked: Useful Fictions in International Politics

The normal ebb and flow of diplomacy relies on a few agreed-upon falsehoods.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters

“Lie” is the watchword of the early days of President Donald Trump’s administration. But not all lies are bad. In fact, the normal ebb and flow of international politics relies on a few agreed-upon falsehoods. Here are some of the useful fictions that make the world go ‘round.

5. Turkey’s EU accession process. Turkey has been in formal negotiations to join the European Union since 2005, with informal discussions going back much further. Those talks are going nowhere fast. The two sides need to conclude 35 negotiating chapters, but, 12 years in, only one has been closed. The European Parliament took a non-binding vote last year to freeze talks, and Austria has openly questioned the process. No one in the EU seems particularly keen to expand the union’s neighbors to include Syria and Iraq. Still, both the EU and Turkey find the idea of the negotiations useful. As EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini put it bluntly, were the membership talks to formally end, “Europe would lose an important channel for dialogue and leverage with Turkey.” Ankara, for its part, wants greater economic integration with the EU of some kind or another. It probably doesn't hurt that the slow-moving EU process also gives Turkish officials avenue to berate the EU for failing to take its interests seriously. There are certainly parties on both sides that want the relationship to be consummated. But how many couples who have been engaged for a dozen years actually go on to be married?

4. New Zealand’s nuclear-free zone. Late last year, the USS Sampson became the first American warship to visit New Zealand in more than 30 years, ending a long-running dispute over America’s intentional ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. will not confirm or deny which of its ships have nuclear capabilities, and New Zealand law bans ships that are nuclear-powered or carry nuclear arms. Many American warships are neither, of course, but New Zealand politicians long interpreted the blanket U.S. policy to mean that any ship could be nuclear, and thus all were barred. Now, with the overall relationship warming, New Zealand has chosen to end the dispute by essentially continuing the fiction. The U.S. still does not divulge whether any particular ship carries nuclear weapons, but New Zealand’s prime minister has agreed to allow in ships that are obviously nuclear-free, without forcing the U.S. to admit it. Or, to only slightly paraphrase him, they agreed to disagree.

3. Greece’s debt. Greece is nearing another debt crisis. After three bailouts in the wake of the global financial crisis, the country’s creditors are once again debating how to head off a possible default that would arrive this summer when various debts come due. At this point, though, no one seriously expects Athens to ever pay its debts in full. The International Monetary Fund has been vocal that Greece needs debt relief. Even the most stringent of pro-austerity voices, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, has acknowledged that Greece's debt is unsustainable, though he argues euro membership prohibits giving Greece debt relief. The trick is balancing incentives—making sure the Greek government pays a fair share and continues to enact economic reforms, while ensuring other countries aren’t encouraged to take on unsustainable debt. That’s no easy thing, so negotiations will continue. They will not, however, end with a euro-member Greece paying all of its debt. But focusing on helping the Greeks fix their debt lets the European Union keep kicking the can down the road without fixing any of the structural problems that led to repeated crises in the first place.

2. Israel’s nukes. The worst-kept secret in international security is, famously, the fact that Israel has operated a nuclear-weapons program since the late 1960s. And yet, neither the U.S. nor Israel will fess up. The main rationale is nonproliferation. Although Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. has, and it has gone to great lengths to ensure that other nations don’t acquire nuclear weapons. Acknowledging a nuclear program in the Middle East would arguably undermine that effort, while declining to do so has the ancillary benefit of ensuring that Israel can’t conduct nuclear tests. But it’s unclear how beneficial Israel’s strategic ambiguity really is. A leaked email last year showed former Secretary of State Colin Powell casually discussing that the U.S. knows that Iran knows that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons pointed at Tehran. Everybody knows.

1. The One-China Policy. The foundation of the modern relationship between the U.S. and China is one big fudge. China sees the breakaway province of Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory. The U.S. is committed to helping defend Taiwan, which includes providing arms. Nonetheless, Washington and Beijing have managed to keep doing business by essentially agreeing to pretend to see eye-to-eye, even when they don’t. The U.S. recognizes the People’s Republic of China diplomatically, and tends to keep the Taiwanese at arm’s length (a billion or two in defense sales notwithstanding). This went smoothly until Trump decided to pull back the curtain on the One-China policy by speaking directly to Taiwan’s leader in November. As president, however, Trump has apparently found that swallowing the truth is not so easy. After being frozen out by Xi Jinping, Trump agreed to honor to the One-China policy after all. In politics, sometimes fiction is more useful than truth.

This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.