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Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics

Updated on June 23, 2013
John Mearsheimer, political scientist and Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago
John Mearsheimer, political scientist and Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago | Source

The seeds of inspiration for the writing of "Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics" was sowed in the spring of 2003, when Dr. John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and "a fearlessly honest political analyst", received a call from Serge Schmemann, asking for his opinion on international lying. Schmemann was then writing for the New York Times.

As Dr. Mearsheimer had never thought about the subject before and there was no literature on it, he suggested that Schmemann tell him what he was thinking, so that he could bounce off some of Schmemann's ideas. The two had had about an hour of fruitful discussion on the phone and after that, Dr. Mearsheimer made some notes and kept them in a folder.

A few months later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) asked Dr. Mearsheimer to give a talk on any subject that he so wishes, and he chose international lying. When he found that people were fascinated by the subject, he gave more talks on it and wherever he went, he found that people were, likewise, fascinated by the subject. What seems to make the subject interesting to many, according to him, is that most people consider lying to be a reprobate form of behavior (even though they may occasionally tell a lie themselves), whereas he, himself, was asserting that international lying is "not necessarily a misconduct, but may often be thought to be clever, necessary, or even virtuous in some circumstances".

Dr. Mearsheimer eventually wrote a paper on international lying and subsequently turned it into a short 160-page book, entitled "Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics". In the book, he identified:

  • the types of lies that leaders tell;
  • the circumstances under which they tell those lies; and
  • the costs of those lies.

Contending that it, sometimes, makes good sense for the leader of a country to lie, Dr. Mearsheimer, however, distinguishes between:

  • Selfish lies: Lies, that leaders tell, that are intended to benefit themselves;
  • Strategic lies: Lies that leaders tell to benefit the country.

The book's focus is on strategic lies.


3 Forms of Deception

According to Dr. Mearsheimer, lying is not the only form of deception. There are 2 other forms, namely:

  1. Spinning, wherein a person emphasizes certain facts, while downplaying or ignoring others, in order to portray his position in a positive light via a distorted picture.
  2. Concealment, which involves withholding information that can undermine or weaken one's position.

Dr. Mearsheimer's book, however, only focuses on how lies are used to deceive others in the foreign-policy realm, although he acknowledges that, in practice, deception campaigns invariably involve spinning and concealment, apart from lying.

5 Types of Strategic Lying

Dr. Mearsheimer identified 5 types of international lies that are used to protect the national interest:

  1. Inter-state lies: These are lies made for the purpose of gaining a strategic advantage over rival states or to prevent them from gaining an advantage. States, sometimes, also lie to their own allies.
  2. Fear-mongering: These are lies made by a leader to his own people, e.g. by exaggerating a potential foreign threat, when the people do not treat the threat seriously.
  3. Strategic cover-ups: These are lies designed to hide either failed or controversial policies from the public and, sometimes, from other states as well.
  4. Nationalist myths: These lies are made by leaders to their own people about their country's past, the purpose of which is to create a powerful sense of group identity and to motivate people to fight wars for their homeland.
  5. Liberal lies: These lies are intended to cover up the behavior of states when it contradicts norms that are not only widely accepted, but are also codified in international law. In such circumstances, leaders will usually invent a story for their people that tries to disguise their actions with idealistic rhetoric.

Offering several examples of each of these types of lies, Dr. Mearsheimer also explains the reasons why leaders lie the way they did under each of the circumstances. President Johh F. Kennedy's denial, for instance, that he had cut a deal with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, was one of the examples he gave of lying that was directed at his own people, the American public. Hoping to slow down the nuclear arms race so that he could spend more money on economic and social programs, Khrushchev had told Kennedy that he would take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, if Kennedy would agree to do likewise, and take the American Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) out of Turkey. Kennedy agreed, but on condition that the deal remained a well-kept secret. The deal, however, was subsequently exposed, when a number of journalists and others smelt the deal and started asking questions about whether or not Kennedy had agreed to trade the removal of its Jupiter IRBMs in Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

According to Dr. Mearsheimer, this is one example of a leader lying to his own people to protect the national interest. As it is, the Cuban missile crisis was the closest that the United States came to war during the Cold War period, and given that both sides have nuclear weapons, there was a possibility that such a war would escalate to the nuclear level. Dr. Mearsheimer, thus, concludes: "I think it was apparent that President Kennedy shut down that crisis, and if he had told a lie to the American people and to the Europeans in order to do it, so be it".

The cost of lying is a Pinocchio-like nose.
The cost of lying is a Pinocchio-like nose. | Source

Cost of Lying

Despite the benefits of international lying, there are costs involved with each of the 5 types of lies, affecting not only a country's domestic politics, but also its foreign policy.

Lying occasionally backfires, in which case a country might end up worse off, rather than better off, for having told a particular lie. Pervasive lying, according to Dr. Mearsheimer, also does grave harm to any body politic because it creates a poisonous culture of dishonesty. Specifically, lying about foreign policy matters might have a blowback effect on everyday life inside a country's own borders by legitimizing and encouraging dishonesty in daily life. Widespread lying makes it difficult for citizens in a democracy to make informed choices, when they vote on issues and candidates, simply because there is a good chance that they are basing their decisions on false information.

For any legal system to work effectively, there must be a substantial amount of honesty and trust in public life. Dr. Mearsheimer says that it is hard to see how a democracy can remain viable for long, if the people have no respect for their leaders because they think they are a bunch of liars. In addition, they will also have no respect for their institutions because they will, likewise, think that these institutions are deeply corrupt.

Of the two downsides of international lying — backfiring and blowback — Dr. Mearsheimer concludes that blowback is the more damaging to a democracy. Nevertheless, he adds:

"In sum, the potential for blowback is the main criterion for assessing the consequences of international lying on the home front, while the potential for backfiring and doing a state more harm than good is the paramount criterion in the foreign-policy realm."

Contents of the Book

Dr. Mearsheimer's book, "Why Leaders Lie:The Truth About Lying in International Politics", is divided into 9 chapters:

  1. What is Lying?
  2. The Inventory of International Lies
  3. Lying between States
  4. Fearmongering
  5. Strategic Cover-ups
  6. Nationalist Myths
  7. Liberal Lies
  8. The Downside of Telling International Lies
  9. Conclusion

A free e-book is available at

Critical Reception

"Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics" was generally well-received by critics, with The National Interest saying that it "provides a number of intriguing insights and surprising conclusions."

The Oxonian Review, however, pointed out that Dr. Mearsheimer's narrow definition of "lie" as "explicit verbal untruths", did not cover nonverbal deception, where one “purposely leads the listener to a false conclusion, without explicitly stating that conclusion”. It cited Operation Mincemeat as an example, where MI5 subterfuge led German intelligence to believe that the Allied invasion of Italy would focus on Sicily, rather than Sardinia. That, The Oxonian Review said, was why Dr. Mearsheimer came to the questionable conclusion that there are actually not many lies in international politics.

Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics


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    • bdn9385 profile image

      bdn9385 3 years ago

      Still you are lucky if islam is your national religion. It's only a matter of time before the rightful heir to its throne arrive and give an accounting to your leaders. The black flag is coming. It's all in the air...☺

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 3 years ago from Malaysia

      QUOTE: "You are lucky if islam is your national religion."

      bdn9385, lucky? Far from it!!! Instead of practicing Islam, they manipulate Islam for their own personal gain!

    • bdn9385 profile image

      bdn9385 3 years ago

      Hi Walter,

      I did not drop by to argue this time. Just wanna share my personal thoughts. ☺

      I also live in Country where lying in government is so rampant. Yours was subdued by Britain and mine was US. These are brothers. I do not know how to introduce this to you but lying among state leaders do not origin by themselves. State leaders were once just a child dreaming to achieve greatness for their country; care and love for their country. Exhibiting that kind of compassion means they are well raised by their parents. Once they become leaders, they got surprised how different and corrupted the waters above are! And they find it too late afterwards that the room at the top is actually empty and infested by plundering beasts and conquerors thirsty of loot and blood. Lying and Corruption is normally just being cascaded down to them by these unseen/unrevealed far superior forces that if they refuse to obey they will suffer the consequences. Had you chose to be like ghadafi of afghanistan who exhibit extreme love and patriotism for his country and subjects, your country will truly prosper but then you are doomed! Iran will actually be a stronghold for righteousness and thus feared by these vampires, they sent obama to befriend and spy. You are lucky if islam is your national religion. China russia and iran are already preparing for the turnaround of events. They are just waiting for the right time. How many more lincoln, kennedy, tupac, michael jackson and paul walker are we going to see? How many more heroes martyred? We see same scenario with celebrities who just once dreamt of fame and fortune and eventually ended up with corruption and abuse. Our fight in this world is not physical but spiritual. A fight against the unseen forces. Focus more on the physical and you will end up at the bottom of the food chain. Those who are at the top will not tell you less you learn and took over their crown from them. They have already learned from history and they do no want another barbarian period to come. The only thing the world hold is the hope that one day, the prophesied ruler of the world would come. And even that has already been anticipated by the enemies and perverted his image and arrival as antichrist and deeply ingrained that into the minds of the people. I do not know how long it will take you to figure it out yourself. Just kidding. By the way, i once met a good friend from malaysia training center. He taught well! And just like you, he was confronted with the same struggles. I asked him who he think is more powerful your president or your sultans? He said your sultans have no power they're just there. I told him powerful people don't reveal their true powers. That way they become more powerful. I hope i could elaborate further but im already sleepy. I can smell a good spirit in you, you know? Thanks and God bless... till next tym... ☺

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Walt Kienia, most of his examples are from the United States. Apparently, he said that tyrants are less likely to lie, since they feel no necessity to do so. A free e-book is available at:

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Mel Carriere, we, Malaysians, have said goodbye to our government statistics. The other thing that we also said goodbye to is "official statements".

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      Abraham Lincoln said there were three types of lies: Lies, Damn lies, and Statistics. I suppose the latter is probably the worse. How often do governments manipulate our perceptions about their actions by manipulating and abusing raw numerical data?

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi Walt Kienia, thanks for your very informative comments. You mentioned: "We've had a history of our leaders lying to us on national and international matters and our level of trust with our government has never been a reason for celebration, yet we still have a working form of democracy that we respect enough to let it all play out - but it is true that as a nation, we are young."

      I'm from Malaysia and we, too, have a history of lying that goes back to the pre-internet days. As the mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government, it was only via the internet that most of us realized that our leaders have been lying to us all along... not for the benefit of the nation, but to enrich and benefit themselves. Nowadays, many of us have lost total trust and respect for our government that even when they tell the truth, no one believes. Yet, we can't do much at the moment because the general elections are anything but clean.

    • WalterPoon profile image

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Billybuc, as usual, you are the first one to comment! The Malaysian government has done such a good job at lying to its own people, such that no one believes them or take them seriously nowadays, even when they tell the truth. It's a great credit to themselves that they receive such an honor, especially when they had fought so hard to make Islam the official religion of the country.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting review Walter. Sounds a bit, though, like splitting hairs at times. Still, the rational side of me understands the need to lie at times on an international stage....and even on a national stage, likes of omission are said daily. I'm not sure the public could handle the pure truth on a daily basis.