Book Review: “Why Leaders Lie” by John Mearsheimer


Book information: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University, 2011.  140p. 22cm

“Why do they do it?  They think that what they are doing is for the good of the country.”  – John Mearsheimer

It is abhorrent to lie to others in daily lives.  Never would anyone like their friends or somebody close to break the credit of trust.  By the same token, no citizens are willing to be deceived by the government officials.  Nonetheless, John Mearsheimer, who is the founder of Offensive Realism and this book author, stated that the leaders do lie more to their people instead of other countries’ leaders in foreign policies, and not all lies are bad as long as national interest is secured.  

From realist perspective, rather than being processed by government branches like domestic affairs, international politics is mainly based on anarchy in realism.  Due to prevalence of anarchy, there is no authority higher than sovereign state.  To ensure own security, national interest is of utmost importance for each country’s survival, which in turn, leaders are utilizing all means for maximizing self-help, including lying.  In this book, Mearsheimer first offered narrow definitions of untruth verbal, distinguished between outright lying, spinning and concealment, as well as between strategic lies (for national interest purpose) and selfish lies (for leaders’ own political purpose).  Afterwards, five varieties of strategic lying in international politics were elaborated in details, namely inter-state lies, fear-mongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist myths, and liberal lies.  

To commence with, by inter-state lies, leaders would acquire certain advantages or prevent other countries’ gain from their own.  Consider Khrushchev’s “missile gap” myth, he had been exaggerating USSR dominant position in ICBM, so as to pressurize America to abandon its atomic plans to Germany and not to provoke an atomic war.  Meanwhile, regardless of Hitler’s aggressive war desire, he kept deceiving other European powers about his will for maintaining peace from 1934 to 1938.  Plus, Israel hided its plans of Dimona nuclear complex in 1960s lest America’s discovery.  All these examples demonstrated that no trust could be formed among states.  Hence, the best they could do is to deceive others for triggering fear through exaggeration or hiding own original intentions.

in addition, fear-mongering is handled, often from top to bottom for national interest, to convey public about the seriousness of the menace.  Lyndon Johnson’s fictional version of Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 aimed at securing a mandate for Vietnam War.  While, Bush administration’s allegations of Iraq’s holding of mass destruction weapons, in spite of insufficient evidences, acted as an excuse to declare the second Iraqi War.  Besides, strategic cover-ups, which intent to wrap failed policies either domestically or from other states, are mostly adopted in democratic states where debates are blatant.  A vivid example was the French government’s cover up of their retreat from the Battle of Verdun during First World War, with a view to keeping morale high.  Therefore, it is patent that the leaders would like to manifest the jeopardy or blanket the flaws of crucial foreign policies through these two kinds of lies.

Nationalistic myth is also one of the paramount means for leaders to delude citizens’ minds by enhancing perpetual social cohesion.  During the conflict between Palestinians and Zionists in 1948, Zionists took that opportunity to remove their rivalries.  To cement people’s national identity, what the Israelis did was to create a brainwashed tale to claim that Palestinians escaped from their homeland  due to the urge of Arabic countries, but not by Zionist’s coerce.  In the meantime, liberal lies, which the devoting claim of liberal or moral norms to capture citizens’ support.  After Soviet’s murdering behaviour in Katyn Forest amidst 1940, America and Britain claimed that they would fight for the moral causes and deal with the criminals on one hand, but accused Germany to bear the blame on the other.  These two types of lying are in concordance to leaders’ desire to strengthen a viable nation-state or legitimize self behaviour by sugar-coated untruths.

Yet, negative repercussions will crop up when deceits are rife or over the top, no matter how noble the lies might seem.  To quote some examples, Khrushchev deliberately deceived about the missile sizes in 1950s, thus constituting greater armament build-ups by America.  What’s more, Eisenhower’s lie about U-2 spy planes in 1960 was at last discovered by USSR, thereby an upcoming summit with Khrushchev came to an immediate halt.  Furthermore, the more the leaders mislead the public, the more the culture of dishonesty foster in domestic politics.  Citizens will often forgive their leaders’ deception if the leader’s actions result in a success, while they will be punished for their misleading if the actions constitute failure.

First and last, this non-fiction provides systematic canvass and an engrossing glimpse of lying in International Politics.  Alluring, powerfully written and richly-informed, even though this reader-friendly book is less than two hundred pages, I am certain you will also be tempted by it. ♦


3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Why Leaders Lie” by John Mearsheimer”

    1. Thank you, it is fantastic that you enjoy my review. As a student studying international relations, I am suggested to skim over this book and find it worth-reading. Similar to the author’s view, I also believe lying is inevitable as competitions for power are common in global politics.

      Liked by 1 person

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