Commentary

Book Review: What Lies Beneath

Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics
By John J. Mearsheimer
Oxford University Press, $21.95, 160 pages

Professor John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago examines an important and intriguing topic in Why Leaders Lie. From the outset, he lets readers know that some of the results of his research are unexpected and even counterintuitive. Perhaps his most startling conclusion is that leaders of states and their diplomatic representatives “tell each other the truth far more often than they lie”. When political leaders do lie, Mearsheimer argues, they more often direct those falsehoods at their own people rather than at foreign governments.

Mearsheimer is no stranger to controversy, and this compact book will do nothing to temper that reputation. Other scholars are almost certain to challenge his argument that interstate lying is relatively rare in international politics. He does, however, build a reasonably strong logical foundation for that proposition, noting that “it is usually difficult to bamboozle another country’s leaders”, and “even when it is feasible, the costs of lying often outweigh the benefits”.

There are prominent historical examples to buttress the latter point, most notably the nasty chill in US-Soviet relations following Moscow’s presentation of indisputable evidence that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had lied about the violation of Soviet air space by American U-2 spy planes. With the proliferation of information technology and the weakening of taboos against disclosing classified information (exemplified by the WikiLeaks episodes), the probability of such embarrassing revelations is even greater now than during Eisenhower’s time, further increasing the level of risk associated with interstate lying.

There is likely to be a lively debate about various aspects of Mearsheimer’s methodology and interpretation. A key feature of the book is his insistence on distinguishing between outright lying on the one hand and “concealment” and “spinning” on the other.

Critics could argue that the latter two behaviours are merely more subtle versions of lying, and that the result is the same: deliberate deception of the domestic population or foreign governments and populations. Mearsheimer concedes that to include concealment and spinning along with deliberate untruths in the category of lying would mean that lying between governments was relatively common.

A second assertion that is certain to provoke controversy is his distinction between “strategic lies” and “selfish lies”. The former, Mearsheimer contends, are lies that are told in the service of the national interest. He concedes that leaders “can also tell selfish lies, which have little to do with raison d’etat, but instead aim to protect their own personal interests or those of their friends”. When he uses the term international lying, he quite deliberately restricts the term to strategic lies, not selfish lies.

But that focus seems too narrow, and it is based on a dubious, artificial distinction. Leaders can tell lies that they may sincerely believe promote the nation’s security and important interests, but that they also know would benefit their personal political fortunes or those of their political party.

Mearsheimer makes a compelling case, for example, that the administration of George W. Bush told several lies in the months leading up to the Iraq war. Those officials may have believed that such deception and threat exaggeration was necessary to overcome public and congressional hesitation about launching a war. But they also knew from their experience with the 2002 congressional election results that the ability to portray themselves as tough on national security issues and their opponents as squishy was a political winner.

In that instance (and in several others throughout history), it appears that both strategic lies and selfish lies were in play. Mearsheimer also concedes too much, especially with regard to deception perpetrated on a domestic audience, when he argues that leaders engage in such behavior “because they believe that it serves the public interest, not to exploit their citizens for personal gain”. That may be the case sometimes, but it is naïve to assume it is always true.

Other portions of Mearsheimer’s analysis are on more solid footing. His argument that states located in regions with intense security competition are more likely to lie than states in peaceful regions accurately reflects the anarchic nature of the international system and the high priority accorded to national survival. Likewise, his observations that leaders are more likely to lie during a crisis, and that they are more inclined to lie to adversaries than allies, is amply supported by historical experience and logic.

The most interesting and relevant portion of Why Leaders Lie is the analysis of outright lies and milder deceptions directed against domestic populations. Mearsheimer’s chapter on “fearmongering” provides important insights and raises an assortment of troubling questions, especially about the past and present behaviour of the US government.

He cites several examples from American history, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s misrepresentation of a naval incident involving the US destroyer Greer and a German submarine in the North Atlantic in the summer of 1941; Lyndon Johnson’s largely fictional version of the better-known Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964; and the Bush administration’s bogus allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. All of these episodes involved false or exaggerated “evidence” that agitated the public and Congress and pushed the nation towards war.

He notes that the most common element of fearmongering is “threat inflation”. The three cases Mearsheimer examines certainly show a pattern of leaders deliberately exaggerating threats to America’s security to secure domestic support for a hard-line response. Interestingly, other incidents he barely touches upon or does not discuss at all may show that tendency with even greater clarity. For instance, Dean Acheson’s famous advice to President Truman to “scare hell out of Congress and the American people” about the Soviet threat to gain passage of the administration’s proposed aid program to Greece and Turkey would appear to be a stark case of threat inflation. So, too, was the Clinton administration’s campaign to portray Slobodan Milosevic as the modern version of Adolf Hitler, whose behaviour posed a threat of a new holocaust in “the heart of Europe”.

Some sceptical analysts pointed out that in terms of both strategic and economic relevance to the United States, the Balkans were more akin to Europe’s appendix than Europe’s heart. Without that systematic campaign of threat inflation, an already reluctant Congress might well have blocked the US-led military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Mearsheimer correctly concludes that government fearmongering is “anti-democratic at its core”. And even if he is correct that leaders who engage in that conduct “invariably believe that their assessment of the threat is correct, even if they are lying about some of the particulars” (and the jury is still very much out regarding that point), it is small comfort to populations that are deceived into supporting wars at considerable cost in blood and treasure. That is especially true when many of those wars were based on dubious strategic assumptions of the governing elite and produced unsatisfactory — if not disastrous — results.

Two of Mearsheimer’s conclusions about fearmongering and threat inflation are especially troubling. The first is that such behaviour “is more likely in democracies than autocracies, because leaders are more beholden to public opinion in democratic states”. The other is that governments are more inclined to lie regarding wars of choice rather than obvious security threats.

If those observations are true, and Mearsheimer builds at least a respectable case, the implications are especially ominous for America’s democratic system. The United States is both a prominent democracy and a country that has a long and growing track record of pursuing wars of choice. That combination would mean that American policymakers face both an unusually high number of opportunities and unusually strong incentives to deceive domestic audiences. Moreover, given Washington’s continued adherence to a global interventionist foreign policy, that tendency is not likely to abate. At a minimum, Mearsheimer’s analysis should lead to some serious national soul-searching.

Ultimately, Why Leaders Lie is a valuable contribution to the discussion of world affairs and the dynamics of both domestic and international politics. It is an impressive, thought-provoking book. But it is also a book that, because of its brevity, raises at least as many questions as it answers. Indeed, it fairly cries out for a subsequent, more comprehensive treatment of the topic, either by Professor Mearsheimer or by other scholars.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice-president, defence and foreign policy studies at Cato Institute in Washington.