Why Leaders Lie

The lies of leaders are often condoned – if they succeed.

Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics By John J. Mearsheimer Oxford University Press 142 pp

John Mearsheimer has to be the most fearless political scientist working in the United States today.

He is best known as coauthor of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the most controversial book on international affairs that has appeared since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he is hardly someone who can be reflexively dismissed as anti-American or as fonder of European conventions than of American power. In his magisterial 2001 book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” Mearsheimer takes an agressive approach to the protection of American interests, articulating a doctrine of “offensive realism,” which includes suggestions that America deliberately limit China’s economic growth, given the high likelihood of war between the two countries as China muscles the US out of Asia.

In short, he is the perfect scholar to tackle the subject of lying in international politics. There is surprisingly little written on the subject, despite the fact that citizens frequently erupt in anger when they discover their leaders have lied to them. Perhaps lying seems like such an amorphous concept that it is difficult to study, or maybe scholars have shied away from a subject – lying in foreign policy – that seems an intrinsic part of the state system.

In Why Leaders Lie, however, Mearsheimer has made the intangible largely concrete. He differentiates between such phenomena as domestic lying, lying between states, strategic coverups, fearmongering, and nationalist myths. He is unconcerned with lying for personal sake, such as Richard Nixon’s claim that he knew nothing about Watergate. Rather, the book concerns lies that are told for national-security purposes.

Since lying is generally considered unjust behavior in one’s personal life, it might suggest that lying in international politics would be similarly taboo.

But as Mearsheimer points out, this isn’t the case. We know now beyond a reasonable doubt that President Franklin Roosevelt lied about German attacks on US ships before America was involved in World War II. Roosevelt also played down Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s tyranny, lest Americans be reluctant to work with a vital ally to defeat Hitler. Mearsheimer calls these “noble lies,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. America was much better off for Roosevelt’s lies, which focused US attention on the German threat.

“International lying, in other words, is not necessarily misconduct,” he writes. “[I]n fact, it is often thought to be clever, necessary, and maybe even virtuous in some circumstances.”

Not all lying is virtuous, of course. The many falsehoods the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq war were very damaging to the US, ensnaring it in an unnecessary war and fostering cynicism and distrust among Americans. What differentiates noble lies and ignoble ones, Mearsheimer writes, is their success. Chilling though this thought may be, had no insurgency arisen in Iraq and had the US invasion of Iraq helped to nurture democracy in the Middle East, as the administration predicted it would, few would now think Bush to be anything but a genius.

The most surprising claim Mearsheimer makes is that lying between countries is actually rare. “There is just not that much inter-state lying,” he writes. Mearsheimer theorizes this is because lying between countries is actually less likely to work than lying to one’s countrymen, since the latter is predisposed to believing their leaders. Moreover, states judge their rivals not by intentions or rhetoric but by military capabilities, materials that can be more easily verified, he writes.

Mearsheimer’s definition for inter-state lying as “statesmen and diplomats lying to one another” seems incorrectly narrow when one considers that much communication between states now occurs via the mass media and other interlocutors. Gone are the days when diplomacy consisted of two designated European aristocrats passing messages between their respective kings. Mearsheimer concedes that it is probably not possible to measure how often statesmen lie to each other because of the vastness of their interactions. But this only demonstrates the problematic nature of the research into this topic, which offers a good explanation for the paucity of scholarship examining foreign-policy lying.

Still, the bulk of Mearsheimer’s other arguments are convincing, and they are delivered in the clear-eyed, unbiased manner for which he is justly famous. “Why Leaders Lie” makes for an enlightening, entertaining read on a juicy topic. And that is no lie.

Jordan Michael Smith has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Foreign Policy.

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