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Why Leaders Lie Book Summary by John J. Mearsheimer

What you will learn from reading Why Leaders Lie:

– The three different forms of lying; lying, spinning and concealment.

– The inventory of international lies, what they are and why they are used.

– The costs and benefits of each type of lie.


Wait Leaders Lie?

What seems to make the subject of leaders lying more interesting to many is that there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries as well as to their own people. International lying, in other words, is not necessarily misconduct; in fact, it is often thought to be clever, necessary, and maybe even virtuous in some circumstances

Yet no argument John Mearsheimer makes is more controversial and generates more discussion than my claim that statesmen and diplomats do not lie to each other very often. Hardly anyone seems to believe this is true-at least when they first hear it. Most people are surprisingly cynical on this issue.


Two of the main findings in this book

1 – Leaders do not lie very often to other countries, but instead seem more inclined to lie to their own people. Although lying is widely viewed as reprehensible behaviour in ordinary life, it is acceptable conduct in international politics because there are sometimes good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to other countries and even to their own people. Nevertheless, there is actually not much lying between states. Leaders do lie to other countries on occasion, but much less often than one might think.

2 – Leaders appear to be more likely to lie to their own people about foreign policy issues than to other countries. That certainly seems to be true for democracies that pursue ambitious foreign policies and are inclined to initiate wars of choice, i.e., when there is not a clear and imminent danger to a country’s vital interests that can only be dealt with by force.


Logic Vs Morals:

Practical logics almost always override well-known and widely accepted moral strictures against lying. Indeed, leaders sometimes think that they have a moral duty to lie to protect their country.

Leaders do not always lie about foreign policy, of course, but they occasionally say things or purposely imply things that they know are not true. Their publics usually do not punish them for their deceptions, however, unless they lead to bad results. It seems clear that leaders and their publics believe that lying is an integral part of international relations.


Why Lie?

A leader has no higher obligation than to ensure the survival of his country. Yet states operate in an anarchic system where there is no higher authority that they can turn to if they are seriously threatened by another state. In the harsh world of international politics, there is no 911 number to call if a state gets in trouble, and even if there were, there is nobody at the other end to pick up the phone. Thus, leaders and their publics understand that states operate in a self-help world where they have to do whatever is necessary to provide for their own security.

If that means lying and cheating, so be it. International politics, in other words, tends to be a realm where rules are often broken with little consequence. This is not to say that leaders are enthusiastic about telling lies or to deny that many leaders would prefer to see the international realm governed by a well defined set of moral principles. But that is not feasible in the absence of a common sovereign to enforce them.

So, broadly speaking, leaders tell international lies for two different reasons.

1 – They can tell lies in the service of the national interest. These are strategic lies that leaders tell for the purpose of helping their country survive in the rough and tumble of inter-state relations.

2 – Leaders can also tell selfish lies, which have little to do with raison d’état, but instead aim to protect their own personal interests or those of their friends.

The book is  concerned with lies that leaders tell for the good of the collectivity, not for selfish purposes.


Lying and Deception:

Lying is obviously a form of deception, but not all deception is lying. There are two other kinds of deception: concealment and spinning. Unlike lying, neither involves making a false statement or telling a story with a false bottom line. Concealment and spinning, however, are not the same as telling the truth.

These two kinds of deception are pervasive in every realm of daily life, and they cause hardly a word of protest. For example, a person interviewing for a job is allowed to spin his life story on a resume in ways that present him in the most favourable light. He is free to omit information from that resume as he sees fit. Politics is an especially fertile breeding ground for spinning and concealing.


Perspectives on Lying:

At the most general level, one can think about lying from either an absolutist or a utilitarian perspective. Absolutists like Immanuel Kant and Augustine maintain that lying is always wrong and that it has hardly any positive effects.

Lying, according to Kant, is “the greatest violation of man’s  duty to himself.” Utilitarians, on the other hand, believe that lying sometimes makes sense, because it serves a useful social purpose; but other times it does not. The key is to determine when and why lying has positive utility.

John looks at international lying from a strictly utilitarian perspective, mainly because there are compelling reasons that justify it and, not surprisingly, we find a considerable amount of it in the historical record. Many people seem to believe that there are circumstances in world politics where it pays to lie. This is not to deny, however, the importance of examining the moral dimensions of this phenomenon.


The rest of the book was built around four questions.

First, what are the different kinds of international lies that leaders tell?

Second, why do they lie? What are the strategic logics that motivate each kind of lying? Specifically, what are the potential benefits of lying that cause leaders to engage in this distasteful, if not noxious, behaviour?

Third, what are the circumstances that make each type of lying more or less likely?

Fourth, what are the potential costs of lying for a state’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy?


CHAPTER 1 – What is Lying?

Before defining lying, spinning, and concealment, it makes good sense to define deception, the general category that includes those three behaviours, as well as truth telling, which is the direct opposite of deception.

Truth telling is when an individual does his best to state the facts and tell a story in a straightforward and honest way. Every person invariably has limited knowledge about the details of any case and biases as well. Memories can also be faulty and it is impossible to relate every fact one knows when telling a story. The key point, however, is that a truth teller makes a serious effort to overcome any biases or selfish interests that he might have and report the relevant facts in as fair minded a way as he can.

Deception, in contrast, is where an individual purposely takes steps that are designed to prevent others from knowing the full truth as that individual understands it-about a particular matter. The deliberate aim, in other words, is not to provide a straightforward or comprehensive description of events

A person is lying when he uses facts-even true facts-to imply that something is true, when he knows that it is not true. In such cases, the liar is purposely leading the listener to a false conclusion without explicitly stating that conclusion

Spinning is different from lying, although there will be some cases where the distinction is murky. Spinning is when a person telling a story emphasises certain facts and links them together in ways that play to his advantage, while, at the same time, downplaying or ignoring inconvenient facts. Spinning is all about interpreting the known facts in a way that allows the spinner to tell a favourable story. It is all about emphasising and de-emphasising particular facts to portray one’s position in a positive light.

Concealment, involves withholding information that might undermine or weaken one’s position. In cases of this sort, the individual simply remains silent about the evidence, because he wants to hide it from others. Of course, if he is asked a question about the matter and lies to conceal it, that behaviour fits the definition of lying.

Lying, as emphasised, is usually considered deplorable behaviour, whereas most people seem to believe that it is acceptable to spin and conceal, even though these behaviours are designed to deceive.

One possible reason for this difference is that lying is more difficult to detect and protect against than either spinning or concealment. Liars make false assertions in ways that are designed not to raise any doubts about the truthfulness of their claims. Skillful liars present false assertions with an air of certainty that makes it especially difficult for the target audience to figure out that it is being bamboozled.

Not surprisingly, there is hardly any stigma attached to lying about one’s reservation price in business dealings. Indeed, one might argue that this kind of bluffing is not lying, because, to quote the British statesman Henry Taylor, a “falsehood ceases to be a falsehood when it is understood on all sides that the truth is not expected to be spoken.”


CHAPTER 2 The Inventory of International Lies

In the foreign policy realm, leaders can tell several different kinds of lies. Each type serves a specific purpose, although a single lie can serve multiple purposes.

Fearmongering  – occurs when a leader lies to his own people about a foreign-policy threat that he believes they do not recognise or fully appreciate. The aim is to motivate the public to take the threat seriously and make the necessary sacrifices to counter it. Leaders do not fearmonger because they are evil or because they are pursuing selfish gains, but because they believe that inflating a particular threat serves the national interest.

Strategic cover-ups  – are lies designed to hide either failed policies or controversial policies from the public and sometimes from other states as well. Leaders do not tell these lies to protect incompetents who bungled their job or to conceal foolish policies-although that can be an unintended consequence. The aim instead is to protect the country from harm. For example, lying to the public about military incompetence in wartime is sometimes important for maintaining solidarity on the home front, which can mean the difference between defeat and victory.

Nationalist myth making – is when leaders tell lies, mainly to their own people, about their country’s past. In essence, they tell a story in which “we” are always right and “they”

are always wrong. Elites do this by denying that their nation or ethnic group has done things it has actually done or by falsely claiming that it has done certain things it has not done. Of course, those elites tell a similar set of lies about rival groups. The purpose is to create a powerful sense of group identity among the broader population, because that is necessary for building and maintaining a viable nation-state, and for motivating people to fight wars for their homeland.

Liberal lies – are designed to cover up the behaviour of states when it contradicts the well-developed body of liberal norms that is widely accepted around the world and  codified in international law. Countries of all kinds, including liberal democracies, sometimes act brutally toward other states, or form alliances with particularly odious states. When that happens, a state’s leaders will usually invent a story for their people or the wider world that tries to disguise their illiberal actions with idealistic rhetoric.

Social imperialism – occurs when leaders tell lies about another country for the purpose of promoting either their own economic or political interests or those of a particular social class or interest group. The aim is to divert the public’s attention from problems or controversies on the home front in ways that will benefit a narrow slice of society, not the general welfare. For example, leaders might try to solidify their hold on power by exaggerating a threat and creating fear on the home front, which, in turn, will lead the public to rally around the regime.

Ignoble cover-ups – are when leaders lie about their blunders or unsuccessful policies for self-serving reasons. Their main aim is to protect themselves or their friends from well-deserved punishment. This kind of lie is not designed to benefit the wider public, which is the main purpose of a strategic cover-up. Nevertheless, because strategic cover-ups usually end up protecting the incompetent, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these two kinds of coverups.

In short, social imperialism and ignoble cover-ups have no redeeming social value. Strategic lies are a different matter. They aim to facilitate the general welfare and they usually have at least a modicum of legitimacy. In essence, strategic lies can do good things for a country, although there is always the possibility that they will do more harm than good.


CHAPTER 3 Lying between States

Political leaders and their diplomatic representatives tell each other the truth far more often than they lie. Even when they are bent on deceiving one another, they are more likely to rely on concealment rather than overt lying. Secrecy, as virtually all students of international politics know well, is a time-honoured approach to developing weapons and strategies that can give one country an advantage over its rivals.

Statesmen and diplomats are more likely to trust each other when they are dealing with issues where there would be no major strategic consequences if either side fell for a lie. In other words, leaders are usually less likely to worry about being deceived when the issue at hand involves economics or the environment-“low politics”-as opposed to national security “high politics”-where trust is scarce.

Lying is only effective when the potential victim thinks that the liar is probably telling the truth. Thus, there has to be good reason for leaders to think that they are not being misled, which means that they cannot lie to each other too often without rendering lying ineffective. In short, inter-state lying must be done selectively and carefully to be useful.

If leaders often lied to each other, it would be almost impossible for them to interact in constructive ways, since nobody would know what to think was true or false. And if a particular leader frequently lied, he would surely get a reputation for dishonesty, and other leaders would be reluctant to reach future agreements with him, which might seriously hurt his country. This is especially true when dealing with economic and environmental issues where there is the promise of continued cooperation in the years ahead. Too much lying, in other words, is bad for business.


Why States Lie to Each Other:

In practice, inter-state lying takes different forms and operates according to different logics. Let us consider some of the ways in which states lie to each other. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, although most inter-state lies would fit into one of these categories.

First, leaders sometimes exaggerate their state’s capabilities for purposes of deterring an adversary, or maybe even coercing it.

A second kind of inter-state lie is when a leader tells falsehoods for the purpose of minimizing the importance of a particular military capability, or even hiding it from rival countries. The deceiver’s aim might be to avoid provoking an attack aimed at destroying that capability, or to prevent another state from forcing it to give up that capability.

Third, a country’s leaders might downplay their hostile intentions toward another state to disguise an attack on it. Sometimes leaders bent on concealing an aggressive action against another country are forced to lie about it when reporters at home start asking probing questions about the impending operation. Those lies, however, are ultimately aimed at the country that is being targeted, not the leaders’ own citizens.

Fourth, a state might lie to downplay its hostile intentions toward a rival state, not to facilitate an attack, but to avoid needlessly provoking that rival.

A fifth kind of inter-state lying is when a country attempts to affect the behaviour of a rival state by threatening to attack it, even though it has no intention of actually starting a war. That empty threat might be designed to coerce an adversary into doing something it does not want to do.

Sixth, leaders might lie to provoke another state into attacking their state or another country.

Seventh, a country that is worried that its allies are not paying enough attention to a dangerous rival state might lie about that adversary’s capabilities or behaviour to make it look more menacing to its allies.

An eighth kind of inter-state lie is where leaders mislead to facilitate spying or sabotage during peacetime, as well as to limit the international fallout if caught in the act.

Ninth, states lie to gain advantage in the course of conducting military operations in wartime. During World War II, for example, the British mounted a massive deception campaign against Nazi Germany in which lying was commonplace. Indeed, it was in the context of these operations that Churchill made his famous statement that “in war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

The tenth kind of inter-state lying involves leaders attempting to get a better deal for their country when they are negotiating treaties and other formal agreements. They might lie to their bargaining partners about their own assets or capabilities, or, more likely, they might bluff about their reservation price-the price above or below which they would not be willing to cut a deal



There are a few sets of circumstances which are likely to promote inter-state lying.

Countries that are located in dangerous areas where there is intense security competition are more likely to lie than states that live in relatively peaceful regions. This tendency is largely a result of the high premium that states place on survival. States that operate in high-threat environments invariably have an acute sense of vulnerability and thus are strongly inclined to employ any tactic or strategy that might enhance their security

Leaders are also more likely to lie in a crisis than during periods of relative calm. A state bent on avoiding war will  have powerful incentives to spread falsehoods if doing so will help end the crisis without a fight. Furthermore, inter-state lying is likely to be much more prevalent in wartime than peacetime.

Finally, leaders are more likely to lie to rival states than allies. “Truth for friends and lies for enemies,” as one scholar put it many years ago. By definition, a rival is more dangerous than an ally, which means that it is more important to find ways to gain an advantage over an adversary than a friendly country


CHAPTER 4 Fearmongering

Fearmongering occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.

Leaders engaged in fearmongering might work to create a threat that hardly exists in the public’s mind, or more likely, they will exaggerate or “hype” a recognised threat that is not causing much alarm outside of government circles. The ultimate goal could be to build support for a containment policy by getting the public to back increased defense spending, enlist in the military, or support a draft. Threat inflation might also be used to mobilise support for launching a war against a dangerous adversary.

Although fearmongering usually occurs in peacetime, it can take place in the midst of a war if leaders feel that their public or their military forces are wavering in their commitment to the fight.



Leaders engage in fearmongering when they think they recognise a serious threat to national security that the public does not see, and that the public cannot be made to appreciate with straightforward and honest discourse. They reason that the only way to mobilise their citizens to do the right thing is to deceive them for their own good.

Fearmongering, which is a straightforward top-down form of behaviour, is antidemocratic at its core, although leaders do it because they think it is in the national interest, not for personal gain.

Fear-mongering those elites who are knowledgable about an issue is unlikely to work, because those dissenters are by definition knowledgeable about the issue at hand and thus hard to fool. An alternative approach, which is more likely to work, is to use  fearmongering to mobilise the broader public in ways that make it suspicious, if not hostile, to those stubborn experts. They would then be isolated and feel suspect, and maybe even worried about their careers, which would make them more likely to temper their criticisms or remain silent, or maybe even shift gears and support the government’s policy.


Fearmongering assumes the public are unable to handle truth

Neoconservative thinking about the broader public’s inability to handle truth is captured in the following comment by Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of that movement: “There are different kinds of truth for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”


CHAPTER 5 Strategic Cover-ups

Inter-state lies are directed at other states, while fearmongering is directed at the home front. Strategic coverups, in contrast, are usually aimed at both of those audiences.

Strategic cover-ups can take two forms.

Leaders can lie about a policy that has gone badly wrong. The motivating reason for the falsehood is to protect the country’s interests, not to shield the individuals who are responsible for the policy failure, although that is usually an unintended consequence.

Leaders can also lie to hide a controversial but smart strategy, because they fear that it will meet serious public resistance and not be adopted. The aim in this instance is not to conceal a bungled policy from the body politic, but to implement a particular policy without arousing strong opposition. In both cases, however, the leaders believe that there are sound strategic reasons for the cover-up. They are lying for what they judge to be the good of the country.

The same harsh assessment of the public’s ability to think wisely that underpins fearmongering underpins strategic coverups.



Stipulating when strategic cover-ups are more or less likely is somewhat complicated because this kind of deception involves two kinds of behaviour-hiding incompetence and masking controversial policies and two different audiences-other countries and the leader’s own public.

What about controversial policies? They are more likely to be hidden from the public in democracies than non-democracies. The most obvious reason for this is that leaders in a democracy must pay more attention to public opinion, because they are held accountable for their actions through regular elections. They cannot enunciate a policy that they think is wise but sure to be unpopular and then ignore the political fallout. In such cases, leaders have powerful incentives to adopt the policy, but not announce the decision publicly, and then lie if necessary to cloak what they have done.

The bottom line is that the likelihood that states will cover up a policy debacle or conceal a controversial policy is usually determined by the same set of conditions that influence inter-state lying, but with two important twists: covering up failed policies is especially likely in wartime, and concealing a contentious policy is especially likely in democracies.


CHAPTER 6 Nationalist Myths

With the rise of nationalism over the past two centuries, numerous ethnic or national groups around the world have established or have tried to establish their own state, or what is commonly called a nation-state. In the process, each group has created its own sacred myths about the past portray it in a favourable way and portray rival national groups in a negative light.

MIT political scientist Stephen Van Evera argues that these chauvinist myths “come in three principal varieties: self-glorifying, self-whitewashing, and other maligning.” Inventing these myths and purveying them widely invariably requires lying about the historical record as well as contemporary political events. “Historical error,” as the French political theorist Ernest Renan succinctly put it, “is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.



The elites who dominate a nation’s discourse are largely responsible for inventing its myths, and they do so for two main reasons. These false stories help fuel group solidarity; they help create a powerful sense of nationhood, which is essential for building and maintaining a viable nation-state.

In particular, these fictions help give members of a national group the sense that they are part of a noble enterprise, which they should not only be proud of, but for which they should be willing to endure significant hardships, including fighting and dying if necessary.

This need to accentuate the positive in a nation’s past is reflected in a law passed by the French government in February 2005, which mandated that high school history courses and textbooks must henceforth emphasise the positive aspects of French colonialism.



Nations continuously purvey their core myths, because most individuals in the group need those stories to make sense of their own identity, and because they foster group solidarity So, one could say that nationalist mythmaking happens all the time.

Of course, those stories have to be updated from time to time, as new information about the past emerges, and fresh myths have to be created to deal with significant new episodes in the nation’s history.

One would also expect nationalist mythmaking to be especially intense when there are serious disputes about a country’s founding. The legitimacy of a state is bound up in important ways with the circumstances surrounding its birth, and most people do not want to think that their country was “born in sin.” How much lying takes place in such cases is largely a function of two factors: the level of brutality involved in creating the nation-state, and how recently it happened.

Self-whitewashing myths, as Van Evera notes, are probably the most common of his three kinds of nationalist lies. And the more recent the relevant events, the more likely it is that people on different sides of the conflict will remember and care deeply about them. In short, when the founding of a country was recent and cruel, the elites will have to work overtime to fabricate a story that portrays their side as knights in shining armour and the other side as the devil incarnate.


CHAPTER 7 Liberal Lies

There is a well-developed body of norms that prescribe acceptable forms of state behaviour and proscribe unacceptable conduct in both peacetime and wartime. These norms are closely linked to just-war theory and liberal ideology more generally, and many of them are codified in international law.

Most statesmen claim that they accept these liberal norms and invariably emphasise their commitment to the rule of law. Nevertheless, leaders sometimes conclude that their national interest compels them to act in ways that contradict these rules. This behaviour includes invading other countries for strategic gain and launching preventive wars, as well as waging war in vicious ways that violate just-war theory.

When states act in ways that run counter to liberal norms or international law, their leaders often invent false stories that are designed to mask what they are doing. Not surprisingly, both British and American elites-including academics, journalists, and policymakers-went to considerable lengths during World War II to portray Stalin in a favourable light, so that it would not appear that Britain and the United States were run by ruthless statesmen who would cooperate with one tyrannical mass murderer to defeat another.

An example of this concerns the British aerial-bombing strategy against Germany during World War II. Beginning. in the early spring of 1942, Bomber Command began a sustained area-bombing campaign, which guaranteed that many German civilians would die. The British government did not want to tell its public that it was purposely killing civilians, because this was a gross violation of the laws of war. Instead, officials lied and said that the attacks were confined to military targets, because “the intentional bombardment of civilian populations, as such, is forbidden.” As the historian Max Hastings notes, “From beginning to end of the war, ministers prevaricated-indeed, lied flatly again and again about the nature of the bomber offensive.



One might think that there is little need to tell liberal lies, since most people intuitively understand that international politics is a nasty and dangerous business, and that countries sometimes have good reason to act in ways that are contrary to liberal norms or international law.

While there is an element of truth in that argument, the fact is that most people still prefer to think whenever they can-that their country is acting justly while their adversaries are not. Thus, leaders sometimes lie to cover up their country’s ruthless behaviour because their publics simply do not want to hear the truth!

The fact is that many people around the world identify with the well-established body of liberal norms and rules that are supposed to guide state behaviour, and they want to believe that their government acts in accordance with them.

Political theorist Michael Walzer captures this point when he writes: “The clearest evidence for the stability of our values over time is the unchanging character of the lies soldiers and statesmen tell. They lie in order to justify themselves, and so they describe for us the lineaments of justice.”



Virtually all leaders-whether they head up autocracies or democracies-are wont to justify their behaviour in terms of liberal norms and international law, even when their actions are principally motivated by the kind of hard-headed strategic calculations identified with realism. However, this penchant for liberal rhetoric does not create problems as long as a country’s behaviour is consistent with both realist and liberal  dictates, as it often is. For example, America’s participation in the fights against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II was easily defensible on moral as well as strategic grounds. The same could be said of the United States’ decision to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or to go to war against Iraq in 1991.

Problems arise, however, when realist and idealist imperatives are at odds with each other. In those cases, elites will usually act like realists and talk like liberals, which invariably necessitates deception, including lying.


CHAPTER 8 The Downside of Telling International Lies

Up to now, the focus has been on the potential benefits of international lying. The emphasis has been on showing what leaders might gain for their country by telling lies to other countries or to their own people. However, there are costs as well as benefits associated with the different types of international lies that I have identified. There can even be a price to pay when a lie works as intended

To assess the negative aspects of international lying-and please remember it is from a strictly utilitarian perspective-it is necessary to consider how each of the five kinds of lies affects a country’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy.

Pervasive lying will inevitably do grave damage to any body politic, because it creates a poisonous culture of dishonesty. Therefore, it makes eminently good sense for leaders  and their fellow citizens to work to minimise the amount of lying that takes place in their country. This is not a simple task, however, because there are sometimes powerful incentives for individuals to lie and cheat to get ahead, even though such selfish behaviour is bad for the society at large.

Routine lying has dangerous consequences for life on the home front, all of which are especially serious for democracies. 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. How can a voter hold a politician or leader accountable when it is impossible to know the truth about that person’s actions? Democracies operate best when they include a reasonably efficient marketplace of ideas, which can only work when citizens have reliable information and there are high levels of transparency and honesty.

Lying by government officials to each other or the public can also cripple a state’s policy-making process, whether it is a democracy or not. Of course, laws exist in part to punish lying, which means that some modicum of dishonesty is expected in any society. But lying cannot be widespread; there has to be a substantial amount of honesty and trust in public life for any legal system to work effectively.

Finally, if lying is pervasive in a democracy, it might alienate the public to the point where it loses faith in democratic government and is willing to countenance some form of authoritarian rule. After all, 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 and no respect for their institutions, because they think that they are deeply corrupt. In short, too much lying can do serious damage to any body politic.


What lies cause the most harm?

The key question for assessing the ramifications of international lying is: which types of lies are most likely to backfire and have harmful strategic consequences? 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.



Fearmongering-unlike the lies that leaders tell each other-is likely to have serious negative consequences for both a state’s internal politics and its foreign policy. To start, there is considerable potential for blowback. Leaders who engage in fearmongering betray a certain contempt for their people and for democracy more generally. After all, they are lying because they do not think that their fellow citizens can be trusted to understand and support the right foreign policy.

Fearmongering is also prone to backfiring and producing foreignpolicy fiascos. The root of the problem is that the public debate about the threat environment cannot help but be distorted, since the leaders are purposely deceiving their people about the dangers facing their country

The fact that a leader feels compelled to fearmonger means that there is a good chance he is misreading the threat environment and that the public has gauged it correctly. If that is the case, and the government ends up pursuing a misguided policy, it will almost certainly lead to serious trouble.

Furthermore, if leaders lie in the service of promoting a flawed policy, they are likely to lose popular support when the public discovers that it has been misled, compounding the country’s troubles. This is what happened to the Johnson administration during the Vietnam War and the Bush administration during the Iraq war. In each case, it became apparent when the war was going badly that there had been serious deception in the run-up to the conflict. Nevertheless, if statesmen and diplomats are found out to have lied about a policy that clearly achieves its aims, the public is unlikely to punish them, simply because nothing succeeds like success in international politics



Strategic cover-ups can also lead to serious trouble both at home and abroad. Leaders who lie to their own citizens about either failed or contentious policies obviously think  that their people are unable to deal intelligently with those matters. As with fearmongering, that situation is naturally ripe for blowback, because policymakers who hold such views can easily slide into thinking that the public is incapable of dealing intelligently with important domestic issues as well, which would open the floodgates for lying on the home front. That outcome would surely have regrettable consequences for any body politic.

Hiding botched policies can lead to further disasters down the road, not just because incompetents are usually kept in key leadership positions for at least some period of time, but also because engaging in coverups makes it difficult to have a national security system in which policymakers and military commanders are held accountable for their actions. No organisation can work effectively without accountability at every level of the operation.

Finally, if a botched policy is kept under tight wraps, it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion about what went wrong and how best to make sure that it does not happen again



Lying to help perpetrate national myths is unlikely to have harmful domestic or foreign-policy consequences. There is not much danger of blowback because most people are usually so taken with their nation’s myths that they do not recognise them for what they are.

Instead, they see the myths as hallowed truths, not lies or distortions of the historical record.

George Orwell captures the essence of this collective self-delusion when he writes, “Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself-unshakably certain of being in the right.” Even well-educated and otherwise sophisticated elites sometimes fall victim to this phenomenon; in effect, they end up believing their own lies.



Liberal lies also do not have a significant downside either at home or on the foreign-policy front. The same shared self-delusion that attends nationalist mythmaking tends to work here as well: most people do not recognise that lying is taking place, because they are inclined to believe that their own country almost always acts nobly.

Thus, there is not much danger of blowback. But even in those rare instances when liberal lies do not work as intended and the public recognises that their country has acted in an immoral or illegal way, there is not much danger of blowback, because most people understand that the rule book used in international politics is not the same one used inside their country’s borders.



Leaders who lie to their citizenry for what they believe are good strategic reasons might nevertheless do significant damage to their body politic by fostering a culture of dishonesty. This is why fearmongering and strategic cover-ups are the most dangerous kinds of lies that leaders can tell. Both carry a risk of blowback because they involve leaders lying to their publics, and both are also prone to producing foreign policy debacles. The potential costs associated with the other three kinds of international lies, nationalist mythmaking, liberal lies, and inter-state lies are not nearly as great as with fearmongering and strategic cover-ups.

Remember, the leaders who are most likely to lie to their publics are those who head democracies bent on fighting wars of choice in distant places. That description obviously fits the United States, and it goes a long way toward explaining the Bush administration’s deceptions in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. But it was certainly not the first administration to engage in fearmongering and it will not be the last.