Heads of state that need a guide to help them lie have to look no further. A short treatise on the subject is now available. University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer’s “Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics” is an essay on the lies presidents spin to other heads of state and to the domestic public sphere. In Mearsheimer’s opinion, presidents use lies as an instrument of statecraft. In fact, presidents use lies to achieve strategic objectives more frequently than one would suspect.
Mearsheimer draws on an extensive list of historical examples to back his assertion that lies are part of statecraft. For instance, Mearsheimer cites Roosevelt’s lies about the nature of the German attack on the USS Greer in 1941 to convince the American public to join the allies during World War II (WWII). Similarly, in 1964 President Johnson lied about the dynamics behind the Gulf of Tonkin incident to build a domestic case to wage war with North Vietnam.
Curiously, Mearsheimer chooses to draw almost all of his examples from the Western world. This decision is significant because the reader is left wondering if the same dynamics hold true elsewhere.
Not only does this choice limit the book’s perspective, it also means that there is no accounting for different cultural points of view for definitions that are chosen and developed. For instance, according to Mearsheimer, lies — the knowing act of representing an inaccurate state of affairs — is one of three tools that can be used to achieve strategic, or even, selfish ends. In the larger scheme, lies along with concealment — the act of withholding information and spinning it — and the ability to show issues in favorable light are part of “presidential deception.” The problem with these definitions is that they could be viewed differently depending on an individual’s cultural perspective. For instance, some cultures around the world may view any form of misrepresentation as a lie, while others may not consider concealment or spinning as a lie.
Instead of focusing on finding perfect definitions, Mearsheimer develops categories to help manage the different forms lies can take. The categories are specific in design, but flexible enough to encompass a variety of cases. For example, “Inter state lies,” which are lies used to gain a strategic advantage over another country, have both diplomatic and military significance. An illustration of this category is Russia’s decision to disregard its promise to not attack Japan during WWII. The Russian leadership’s decision to lie was strategic in nature. It allowed Russia to have a military advantage over Japan at a later point in the war.
This is not to say that all lies are between heads of state. Some categories of lies apply to presidents and their people. The category of “strategic cover-ups” is a case in point. “strategic cover-ups” — lies to hide failed policies both domestically and from other states, can have significant domestic value. An example used in the book was the French government’s handling of the cover up of the initial French retreat to the German Schlieffen plan during World War I (WWI). The French decided not to fully expose the retreat to keep morale high.
One of the interesting findings Mearsheimer offers us is that heads of state are less likely to lie on the international stage as opposed to the domestic setting. The reason is that the ramifications of lying on the international stage can damage potential relationships and international credibility.
However, by focusing on international and domestic lies, Mearsheimer misses an important category. The joint category of lies that are generated for both international and domestic audiences is left unaddressed. These are lies that are generated between a cabinet post and head of state. Arguably, these lies are common because ministries and heads of state have different goals and objectives.
An excellent example of this category of lies can be found in the late Professor Stephen M. Meyer’s 1991 working paper, “U.S. Interests in the Soviet Future: The Power of the Soviet Military.” Meyer shows that Mikhail Gorbachev was in a perilous situation when it came to managing the Soviet weapons arsenal. As Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Gorbachev sought to negotiate arms pacts reductions with Western nations. The challenge was that he had to rely on the Soviet military to review his weapons stockpile and maintain its operational status at the same time. Since the Soviet military was less likely to benefit from a weapons reduction, it was difficult to know if they would choose to lie or not in their reports. This was troublesome because Gorbachev could run the risk of looking like a liar on the international stage when it came time to negotiating arms reductions.
Apart from the discussion of the different forms of lies, the book lends a great deal of discussion to the moral implications attached to lying. The moral issue appears to be a struggle for Mearsheimer. He acknowledges that lying is a fact of life, while at the same time, asserting that lies undermine basic democratic principles. It is thus hard to unravel the author’s moral opinion of the issue.
According to Mearsheimer, countries, like the US, that lack contested borders and have a variety of international interests, are ideal candidates for creating more lies in the future. And so, Mearsheimer suggests that the ethics of lying will be a reoccurring theme for the United States.
Written in the format of a treatise, “Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics” provides an attempt to define and categorize the different types of lies heads of state will make. However, there are a number of limitations such as its lack of discussion of the bureaucratic element that prevent it from being comprehensive. Nevertheless, the book should still be of interest to international affairs practitioners that are interested in the role of lies in the art of statecraft.
About the Book: Mearsheimer, John. Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics . (Oxford University Press, New York) 160 pages.
Anand Datla is a former Defense Department civilian who worked on strategic planning, policy and operations. He also served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. Currently, he is a consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area.
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