Why Leaders Lie
Gerald Duckworth & Co, 2011
The discrepancy between idealist rhetoric and realist practice in international relations was spectacularly illuminated this year by WikiLeaks’s publication of US diplomatic cables. We have long had proof of specific leaders’ duplicity—Nixon on Watergate, Clinton on “that woman”, Blair and Bush on weapons of mass destruction—but the memos released at the cusp of 2011 were novel in their revelation of the extent to which the international system runs on deceit. John Mearsheimer’s study, then, appears especially timely; its subject is both fascinating and urgent. Why Leaders Lie offers two contributions to our understanding of dishonesty in foreign policy. The first is the initially counterintuitive finding that states lie to each other relatively rarely, and that it is democratic leaders who are most likely to lie to their own populations. The second is his typology of the varieties of deception in international affairs, which serves as an explanation of why leaders tell these lies.
Oxford University Press appears to be emulating Princeton’s invigorating range of neatly argued and accessible monographs by academics including Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? Illustrating his analysis with cases from the Ems Telegram to the Gulf of Tonkin, Mearsheimer’s offering certainly provides a vivid and enlightening tapestry of context to the scandals which currently provoke our outrage. Yet what promises to be an essential and compelling study ultimately fails to capitalise on these observations and yields little further reward. One suspects the format, which leaves space for no more than a succinct argument and a few examples, is better suited to philosophy than to international relations.
Defining a lie as explicitly providing one’s audience with falsehood as fact, Mearsheimer distinguishes between two sorts of international lie based on two potential audiences: lying to other states and lying to one’s own people. He insists that every instance he could find of inter-state lying is contained within the book, and assuming he is correct, this would mean that there have only been a handful or two of cases in the last two centuries. This is surely an interesting observation, and Mearsheimer backs it up with a robustly realist explanation. Lying is parasitic on a community of trust; it is most effective and therefore most rampant where it is least anticipated. The international scene, which in “card-carrying realist” tradition Mearsheimer paints as the Hobbesian state of nature writ large, is in effect vaccinated against lying by the antipathy rife between state leaders. “It seems clear that leaders and their publics believe that lying is an integral part of international relations;” because everyone expects deception, mendacity is an especially ineffective, and therefore rare, strategy.
On the other hand, the democratic state of law thrives and depends on trust, and so is ripe for abuse. Our politicians, more than autocrats, require the oxygen of public support for their policies, and so when it fails to appear, they are tempted to create it artificially. Mearsheimer categorises the lies our leaders tell us according to the effects they seek to achieve. Leaders “fearmonger” in order to amplify a threat they feel the populace would otherwise underestimate; Johnson, for example, fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to stir Congress to declare war on North Vietnam. They perform “strategic cover-ups” of mistakes and policy failures in order to limit the international fall-out; Eisenhower, for example, claimed that the U2 spy plane downed in Soviet airspace was collecting weather data. They engage in “nationalist myth-making”, reinventing the historical record in order to bind their populations with a guiltless national identity; former colonial powers, for example, long denied or downplayed the viciousness of their regimes. Finally, they tell “liberal lies”, embellishing their government’s often illiberal methods with idealistic motives. These are all lies in the perceived national interest; of course, leaders also deceive to advance their class interest, or to save their own skins after a policy failure, but Mearsheimer rightly focuses on the more morally ambiguous realm of lying in the national interest.
It is when the reader seeks more than this “inventory of international lies” that disappointment awaits. Of course we cannot expect Mearsheimer to predict when such lies will fail or succeed, but merely giving the aims of the lies does little to fulfil the title’s promise to explain them. It may be that the penalty for making such lucid and plausible assertions is that one’s argument strikes the reader as simple and repetitive, but the account as a whole feels thin, with its key insight turning out to be its only insight. Need one be told, for example, that “if leaders lie in the service of promoting a flawed policy, they are likely to lose popular support when the public discovers it has been misled…”? At times he approaches deeper analysis, as in his account of why leaders would resort to fearmongering, offering an exercise in empathy that serves to underline the contempt in which such leaders hold their publics. It is however in the book’s preface and not its title that the reader finds its true utility; although it does not explain “why leaders lie”, but it does provide, as he hopes, “a conversation-starter” on the subject.
In evaluating these motives for deception, Mearsheimer insists his approach is “utilitarian”. Aside from the pedantic point that his measure is in fact national interest, rather than “the greatest good for the greatest number”, a more serious problem is how this evaluative perspective undermines his analysis of the disadvantages of lying. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot’s response to Animal Farm; that “what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” Mearsheimer’s identification of the key pitfall of state dishonesty as the corrosion of trust in public debate invites an analogous retort: it suggests that what we need is not more honesty but better cover-ups. If lies are well told and perfectly concealed, trust in public debate would in fact prosper. Of course, this is exactly why leaders are so tempted to lie; although they know that generalised duplicity would pollute the deliberative ecosystem, there is no reason to believe that a particular instance of lying will be discovered.
A deeper problem is the self-fulfilling tendency of his analytic lens, the realist theory of international relations. As mentioned, his emphasis on the absence of a global policeman, with diplomacy as a “self-help world”, works efficiently to explain his observation of the rarity of international lying. However, it is only because he holds this model of international power as exclusively wielded by nation-states that he reaches that observation in the first place; it allows him to gloss over corporate denial of human rights violations, for example. Additionally, Mearsheimer flits between a definition of lying as exclusively verbal, where “a person makes a statement that he knows or suspects to be false in the hope that others will think it is true”, and a definition including instances of nonverbal deception, where one “purposely lead[s] the listener to a false conclusion without explicitly stating that conclusion.” An example would be Operation Mincemeat, where MI5 subterfuge led German intelligence to believe that the Allied invasion of Italy would focus on Sicily rather than Sardinia. If one includes not only explicit state-to-state insincerity, but also nonverbal deception and the duplicity of non-state actors, international perfidy dramatically reappears.
Lying, it transpires, is the vice of the accountable. Whereas those with the power to flout rules achieve their ends by other means, those constrained by the law must resort to deception. It is also, in the words of La Rochefoucauld, “the tribute vice pays virtue”; unlike threats and coercion, those who lie implicitly reaffirm the value of truth, and those who lie about the principles their actions embody simultaneously reaffirm the value of those principles. The prevalence of lying in our political class emerges as a somewhat perversely comforting thought—it demonstrates that they have no other means of getting what they want, and that at least when we detect it, we can bring its perpetrators to justice.
Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.