Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics – John Mearsheimer

By Joel Wong

Jeffrey Sachs and John Mearsheimer are both prominent international relations scholars who have made significant contributions to the field. They are both highly respected for their intellectual rigor and their willingness to challenge conventional thinking. I have enjoyed learning about them and their knowledge and theories on international politics. In one of their recent exchanges on YouTube, John Mearsheimer talked about his book “Why Leaders Lie“. I find his book fascinating and relevant and I would like to share some of the highlights here.

The book talks about lying in international politics, and how leaders use it as a tool of statecraft. It argues that leaders lie for strategic reasons, and that lying may not always be immoral or irrational. The book identifies five types of lies that leaders tell: inter-state lies; fear-mongering; strategic cover-ups; nationalist myths; and liberal lies to create a sense of national pride. It also discusses the costs and benefits of lying, and some factors that limit its effectiveness. Mearsheimer draws on many historical and contemporary examples to illustrate his arguments, including:

  • The Gulf War: The United States overstated the threat posed by Iraq to justify the invasion of that country in 1991. The Bush administration repeatedly claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though there was no evidence to support these claims.
  • The Iraq War: George W. Bush’s administration also lied about the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify the invasion of that country in 2003, deliberately manipulated intelligence to make it appear that Iraq was working with al-Qaeda and was developing nuclear weapons.
  • The Vietnam War: Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration lied to the American people about the nature of the war in Vietnam. The US administration repeatedly claimed that the United States was winning the war, even though this was not the case as was pointed out by the “Pentagon Papers”.
  • The Korean War: Harry S. Truman’s administration lied to the American people about the reasons for the Korean War. The administration claimed that the war was a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, when in reality it was primarily a civil war between North Korea and South Korea.
  • The Cold War: Both the United States and the Soviet Union routinely lied to each other during the Cold War. Both sides engaged in espionage and propaganda, and that they often spread misinformation about each other’s intentions.

Mearsheimer distinguishes between two main types of lying:

Interstate lying: This is when a state lies to another state. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as making false promises, concealing information, or exaggerating the threat posed by the other state. He claims that interstate lying is relatively rare, and that it is often unsuccessful because states are constantly on the lookout for deception, and they are quick to discredit each other when caught lying.

Domestic lying: This is when a state lies to its own citizens. This can be done in order to gain public support for a particular policy, to hide embarrassing information, or to maintain popular morale. Domestic lying is more common, and it is usually more effective because governments have greater control over the information that their citizens receive, and they are less likely to be punished for lying to their own people.

Paradoxically, John claims that “democratic” governments tend to lie more and use stronger narratives than “autocratic” governments because democratic leaders often have to “justify” to their public about the reasons, costs, and benefits of going to war and they fear that telling the truth would undermine popular support and provoke domestic opposition.

The phrase “caveat emptor” is Latin for “let the buyer beware.” Let’s use our power of “critical thinking” and practice “caveat emptor” when listening to our government or the other governments!


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