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Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics [Hardcover]

John J. Mearsheimer
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 7, 2011 0199758735 978-0199758739 First Edition
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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Editorial Reviews


"Provides a number of intriguing insights and surprising conclusions."--The National Interest

"Entertaining and well-written...this is a short and punchy book with a lot of lists and observations rather than a fully formed theory...On its own terms, this book is an attempt to start a conversation about how lying operates in international politics. In that respect, it succeeds admirably, and contains a number of important avenues for future research."--International Affairs

"[Mearsheimer is] one of the most prominent, productive and imaginative scholars in the realist school of international relations. In this brief, highly instructive volume he discusses how and why leaders have used deception, dissembling and outright lying in pursuit of foreign policy goals."--The RUSI Journal

"Myth-makers beware! Writing with verve and economy, John Mearsheimer breaks new ground in exposing this hot-button issue to systematic scrutiny."--Jack Snyder, Professor of International Relations, Columbia University

"Is lying in international politics a shameful behavior or a useful tool of statecraft? When is it good for leaders to lie to their own people? Is there too much--or too little--lying in international politics? John Mearsheimer answers these and other similarly explosive questions with the boldness and originality for which he is so well known. This is an insightful essay by one of the world's most provocative thinkers. A fascinating read."--Moisés Naím, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former Editor-in-Chief,Foreign Policy

"This path-breaking study of lying in international politics is full of surprises. World leaders can lie to each other without suffering grave consequences, but they do it far less often than we might suppose. However, when leaders lie to their own publics about foreign policy conduct, significant damage can result--particularly in democracies. John Mearsheimer categorizes the various types of lies and weighs the risks of undertaking them in this insightful analysis that is so relevant to our times."--James F. Hoge, Jr., Chairman, Human Rights Watch, and former Editor, Foreign Affairs

"In this fascinating little book, John J. Mearsheimer argues that lying about foreign policy is an intrinsic part of the democratic way of life. This is an important message for those members of democratic publics who wish to avoid being bamboozled by their leaders."--Robert O. Keohane, Professor of Public and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

About the Author

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. His books include The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize, and New York Times bestseller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which has been translated into nineteen languages.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (January 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199758735
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199758739
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #404,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid, thoughtful, readable January 9, 2011
Mearsheimer's new book is a much-needed think piece on lying that accomplishes two very different tasks: first, providing an analytical framework (he calls it a "theoretical template") for subsequent research on this self-evidently important yet neglected topic; second, providing a clearly written exegesis on lying that is utterly accessible to the average reader. Who would have assumed, for example, that lying between nations is rare, whereas lying by democratic governments to their own people is more common by comparison? In a time when self-made complexity and obscurity is too readily mistaken for insight, one cannot help but admire the crystalline clarity of Mearsheimer's superb little book.
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37 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cornerstone, Not the Whole Building January 2, 2011
By no stretch should this book be dismissed as a three. While I might normally have gone with a four, I am settling on five for balance and because the author not only covers an extraordinarily important topic in a sensible measured way, but his endnotes are another book all by themselves--I recommend all readers start there.

Where the author falls short is in lacking a strategic analytic construct for measuring the true costs of lying in blood, treasure, and spirit. He tends to ascribe pure motives to leaders (for example, not at all confronting the raw fact that Dick Cheney committed 23 documented impeachable acts (see my review of Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency for the itemization) and Dick Cheney also led the telling of 935 documented lies best covered by TruthDig but also in Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq.

The book disconnects grand strategy (global engagement) from domestic prosperity in a manner I find disconcerting, and while the author is most able in documenting the costs to a democracy of lies to the public, I do not see nor feel the deeper reality: lies destroy the Commonwealth. Lies allow a two-party tyranny to sell out to the Arabs (not just the Israelis), to Wall Street--lies permit the mortgage clearinghouse fraud, the derivatives fraud, and the Federal Reserve fraud on the one hand, while also fooling the public into a national security policy that is clinically insane, catastrophically costly, and ultimately a self-inflicted wound that could be fatal.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very meh. Get it from the libaray, but don't buy it. March 15, 2012
By D. H.
Bottom line up front: Don't bother buying it, it would be a waste. Get it from the library or used for under $5 and you can finish reading it in one sitting. He's basically telling you things that you already know, just in a structured way.

Given that Mearsheimer is a heavy hitter in the IR field, I expected more. The premise of the book is interesting, though the ideas are not nearly thought out enough to warrant an entire book. The "meat" of the book is only about 100 (tiny) pages and within that he repeats himself constantly. It really seems as though he took what should be a 15 page essay and fluffed it up with a bunch of WWII examples he knew off the top of his head and an intro and conclusion that does nothing to add to the analysis of the topic.

Some of his points also don't come across very strong. He outlines a number of cases in which leaders lie, both to their own constituents, but also to other states. That part is logical, though his "proof," which is basically a couple of anecdotes, don't back it up much. However, one of his claims is that states don't often lie to one another--a strong claim at first glance. He admits that he had assumed just the opposite, that leaders lie to other leaders all the time in international politics, but that he was proven wrong during his research. After reading it, I'm still not sold. In fact, he spends a substantial amount of time giving a handful of cases in which leaders DO lie to one another (like Soviet Union exaggerating how many missiles it had, or during treaty negotiation, or in preparation for a war). After reading all of his outlines for this, I'm more convinced that leaders lie to one another all the time!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Leaders Lie March 15, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a public relations professional it really hepls one understand the spin that politicians and those trying to manipulate public opinion use the techniques described in the book.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
There are already accurate positive reviews on this book so I won't repeat what others have said accurately.

I'll provide a few minor quibbles so that the readers can get more out of this book.

On page 50;

"The Bush administration actually had solid evidence before the war that Saddam and Bin Laden were not working together."

...and for proof, he wrote;

"As noted, two high-level Al Qaeda operatives captured after September 11 independently told their interrogators that there was no link between the two."

Didn't it occur to him that they could have been lying about it to conceal the link?

...and also, he wrote;

"Moreover, neither the CIA nor the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) could find conclusive evidence of a meaningful link between bin Laden and Saddam before the United States invaded Iraq. Nor was the 9/11 Commission able to uncover evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between those two leaders."

Please notice lack of proof doesn't necessarily mean the existence of disproof.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars nothing new
Nothing new about why government lie...because everyone lies..so rather than reading this book, I suggest everyone take the red pill instead.
Published 23 months ago by David Ip
5.0 out of 5 stars The Cornerstone of Politics - ?
We have domestic lying lying between states, strategic cover-ups, fear-mongering and nationalist myths (eg. Read more
Published on February 18, 2012 by Loyd E. Eskildson
1.0 out of 5 stars Why do writers lie?
To show that someone is lying you need to do three points.

1) You need to show what they said, in what lawyers call context. Read more
Published on July 17, 2011 by BernardZ
4.0 out of 5 stars Lies
John Mearsheimer's short new book is about lying in international politics. In this arena, political/national leaders can lie to other countries' political/national leaders or they... Read more
Published on May 5, 2011 by G.X. Larson
5.0 out of 5 stars You will gain rewarding insights
Reading this book you will gain rewarding insights into the phenomenon of lying in politics. Author illuminates both types. One is the intentional lying. Read more
Published on May 3, 2011 by Lev Shakhmundes
5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST READ FOR ALL CITIZENS
This book shoud be read by all persons concerned about the quality of all elected officials and policy influencing government employees. Read more
Published on February 24, 2011 by NYRICH
3.0 out of 5 stars Common senses with some anecdotes
OK - there are three kinds of lies, lies to the people, lies to foreign countries, and lies to both the people and foreign countries. Read more
Published on December 3, 2010 by bessel
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