John Mearsheimer – “Why Leaders Lie”

Information on the Book
Title: Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics
Author: John Mearsheimer

  • R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago
  • Research fellow at the Brookings Institution, post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, and Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Major Works: “Conventional Deterrence,” “Liddell Hart and the Weight of History,” “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” and “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities”

In Why Leaders Lie, Mearsheimer provides the first systematic analysis of lying as a tool of statecraft, identifying the varieties, the reasons, and the potential costs and benefits. Drawing on a trove of examples, he argues that leaders often lie for good strategic reasons, so a blanket condemnation is unrealistic and unwise.

Yet there are other kinds of deception besides lying, including concealment and spinning. Perhaps no distinction is more important than that between lying to another state and lying to one’s own people. Mearsheimer was amazed to discover how unusual interstate lying has been; given the atmosphere of distrust among the great powers, he found that outright deceit is difficult to pull off and thus rarely worth the effort.

Plus it sometimes backfires when it does occur. Khrushchev lied about the size of the Soviet missile force, sparking an American build-up. Eisenhower got caught lying about U-2 spy flights in 1960, which scuttled an upcoming summit with Krushchev. Leaders more often mislead their own publics, sometimes with damaging consequences. Though the reasons may be noble–Franklin Roosevelt, for example, lied to the American people about German U-boats attacking the destroyer Greer in 1940, to build a case for war against Hitler-they can easily lead to disaster, as with the Bush administration’s falsehoods about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. 


I read this prior to my internship, where I read a chapter of Dr. Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics about China’s rise. Ever since learning about his work through IR courses, I have tried to read as many articles/books written by him. This was one that I enjoyed particularly.

The most significant takeaway is the different types of deception in politics: lying, spinning, and concealment.

Lying is a positive action to deceive someone, or actively attempting to provide false information. Spinning is emphasizing and deemphasizing certain facts to make the best out of the available information. It reminded me of Malcolm Tucker, the notorious spin doctor from BBC’s The Thick of It series. In one scene, Malcolm tells his fellow comms people to “Give them [ministers] the lines.” That shows how facts are spun to make politicians look good. Concealment is actively remaining silent about information ; it’s basically withholding information that will have a negative impact.

Though the lines distinguishing one from the other are incredibly blurry, Dr. Mearsheimer argues that states prefer spinning and concealing over lying, since it’s about not telling the whole truth (not lying). In any case, lying is always worse because if caught, the consequences could be devastating. If one is caught spinning or concealing, that would garner less criticism than outright lying.

Perhaps shockingly, Dr. Mearsheimer states that politicians will lie more to their citizens than to other nations. In a state-to-state interaction, politicians are more likely to conceal rather than lie. The risks of being caught lying by another state are higher than being caught by a state’s own citizens. In a zero-sum world (posited by realists like Dr. Mearsheimer), adversaries are vying to take power away from you in order to survive; lying could be seen as an active step to deceive and take advantage of an enemy, thus potentially starting a conflict over a misinterpretation.

In Chapter 4, the book introduces fearmongering, which is spreading frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger to arouse fear in the public. States do this to justify certain policies that may garner criticism and it is typically done in the name of national security. Many throughout US history have done this; FDR did it to start World War II, LBJ to initiate the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, and Bush to start the Iraq War in 2003.

A key concept here is the difference between preventive and preemptive war. A preventive war is illegal because it’s an attack on a state with no intention of attacking. A preemptive war is attacking first on the grounds of self-defense. Again, while the lines are blurred, fearmongering helps aid the notion that a state is facing an imminent threat of attack and must attack first.

The book also introduces the concept of liberal lies. This type of lie is told to justify actions, especially if citizens don’t want to hear something or the statesmen want to look good. Dr. Mearsheimer provides the example of the US and UK portraying the USSR’s tyrant Joseph Stalin as “Uncle Joe.” It was a move to try and gather support for the alliance with the USSR by portraying Stalin as a good man. Obviously he wasn’t, and Stalin stood for many of the things citizens would have despised. However, it was a necessary step for statesmen to take at the time in order to justify the alliance with a morally unacceptable and ideologically different USSR. In times of crisis, statesmen tend to be realist in nature (needed USSR to defeat Nazi Germany) but talk like liberals to remain in good terms with the world.

In the concluding chapters of the book, Dr. Mearsheimer describes how fearmongering and coverups (when policy goes terribly wrong) are the worst actions that can be taken by a state. It could lead to blowback, hurting the very fabric of society and lead to dishonesty.

Clearly, this book was not written to promote the use of these tactics of deception; rather, Dr. Mearsheimer is providing readers with the tools to actively seek out these tactics. It also confirms the realist idea that states do not trust each other (zero-sum survival game), and thus would rather lie to their own citizens than to other states.

Most of all, it may be unfair to politicians to be condemned for every act of lying. Sure, there are instances where lying is so obvious and unnecessary that it deserves criticism. But in a world where deception is commonplace, statesmen protect their country by lying. While that’s true, lying could also end up exacerbating the problem.

This book provides the necessary tools to distinguish between such lies. By doing so, readers would understand the underlying motivations of such actions. For those studying policymaking, it provides a method for understanding why statesmen chose actions with devastating consequences.

The moral of the story is that lies are a double-edged sword: on one hand, it could serve the nation, while on the other, it could shake the very foundations of a nation.

Image: US Navy

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