For more than two decades, John J. Mearsheimer has been regarded as one
of the foremost realist thinkers on foreign policy. Clear and incisive
as well as a fearlessly honest analyst, his coauthored 2007 New York Times bestseller, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,
aroused a firestorm with its unflinching look at the making of
America’s Middle East policy. Now he takes a look at another
controversial but understudied aspect of international relations: lying.

In Why Leaders Lie,
Mearsheimer provides the first systematic analysis of lying as a tool
of statecraft, identifying the varieties, the reasons, and the potential
costs and benefits. Drawing on a wealth of examples, he argues that
leaders often lie for good strategic reasons, so a blanket condemnation
is unrealistic and unwise. Yet there are other kinds of deception
besides lying, including concealment and spinning. Perhaps no
distinction is more important than that between lying to another state
and lying to one’s own people. Mearsheimer was amazed to discover how
unusual interstate lying has been; given the atmosphere of distrust
among the great powers, he found that outright deceit is difficult to
pull off and thus rarely worth the effort. Moreover, it sometimes
backfires when it does occur. Khrushchev lied about the size of the
Soviet missile force, sparking an American build-up. Eisenhower was
caught lying about U-2 spy flights in 1960, which scuttled an upcoming
summit with Krushchev. Leaders are more likely to mislead their own
publics than other states, sometimes with damaging consequences. Though
the reasons may be noble–Franklin Roosevelt, for example, lied to the
American people about German U-boats attacking the destroyer USS Greer
in 1940, to build a case for war against Hitler-they can easily lead to
disaster, as with the Bush administration’s falsehoods about Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction.

There has never been a sharp
analysis of international lying. Now a leading expert provides a richly
informed and powerfully argued work that will change our understanding
of why leaders lie.

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