Why Leaders Lie

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics
John Mearsheimer.jpg
2007 photo of the author
AuthorJohn Mearsheimer
CountryUnited Kingdom, United States
SubjectLying in politics
GenreInternational Politics
PublisherOxford University Press (U.S.) and Duckworth (UK)
Publication date
Media typeHardback
Preceded byThe Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy 

Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics is a 2011 book by the political scientist John Mearsheimer.


The book argues that leaders lie to foreign audiences as well as their own people because they think it is good for their country, citing the example of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's lie about the Greer incident in August 1941, due to a deep commitment to getting the United States into World War II, which he thought was in America's national interest.

The book maintains that leaders do not lie much to other countries, and that democratic leaders are actually more likely to lie to their own people than autocrats.[1] Thus, he starts his book by saying that it is not surprising Saddam Hussein did not lie about having WMD—he truthfully said he had none—but that George Bush and some of his key advisors did lie to the American people about the threat from Iraq. Mearsheimer argues that leaders are most likely to lie to their own people in democracies that fight wars of choice in distant places. The author says that it is difficult for leaders to lie to other countries because there is not much trust among them, especially when security issues are at stake, and you need trust for lying to be effective. He concludes that it is easier for leaders to lie to their own people because there is usually a good deal of trust between them.

Mearsheimer suggests that most political lies fall into one of five categories: inter-state lies, fear-mongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist myths, and liberal lies. He explains the reasons why leaders pursue each of these different kinds of lies. He also says that international lying can have negative effects, and there he emphasizes "blowback," which is where telling international lies helps cause a culture of deceit at home, and (unintended consequences)/"backfiring," which is where telling a lie leads to a failed policy. He also emphasizes that there are two other kinds of deception besides lying: "concealment,” which is where a leader remains silent about an important matter, and "spinning," which is where a leader tells a story that emphasizes the positive and downplays or ignores the negative. Mearsheimer does not consider the moral dimension of international lying; he looks at it simply from a realist perspective.


The work has attracted several positive reviews, with both The Washington Post and Foreign Affairs describing the book as "fascinating".[2][3][4] The Oxonian Review has however criticised the book's realist perspective for understating the disadvantages of lying. They also suggested that it is only because Mearsheimer uses a narrow definition of what counts as a lie - explicitly verbal untruths, not misdirection by other means - that he finds so few examples of actual lies in international politics.[1]


  1. ^ a b Barker, Alexander (2011-10-17)International Deceit, Oxonian Review
  2. ^ Carlos Lozada (2011-04-15). "John J. Mearsheimer's "Why Leaders Lie"". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  3. ^ Summary of editorial reviews on Amazon
  4. ^ Stuar A Reid (2011-01-14). "Diplomacy and Duplicity". Slate. Retrieved 2013-03-03.