Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics

Here are some highlights from this 2011 book by John J. Mearsheimer:

* I argue 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.

* statesmen and diplomats do not lie to each other very often.

* It is important to emphasize that in none of those cases were the president or his lieutenants lying for narrow personal gain. They thought that they were acting in the American national interest, which is not to say they acted wisely in every case. But the fact is that there are good strategic reasons for leaders to lie to their publics as well as to other countries. These 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.

* In contrast to the international system, the structure of a state is hierarchic, not anarchic. In a well-ordered state, there is a higher authority—the state itself—to which individuals can turn for protection. Consequently, the incentives to cheat and lie that apply when states are dealing with each other usually do not apply to individuals within a state.

* In domestic politics, however, lying is generally considered wrong, save for some special circumstances, such as when individuals are bargaining over the price at which they would buy or sell a house, or when protecting an innocent person from wrongful harm.

* There is a simple explanation for these different attitudes toward domestic and international lying. 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.

* One can also make a moral case against lying within the confines of a state, because a well-defined community usually exists there, which is not the case in international politics. Thomas Hobbes put the point succinctly in Leviathan: “Before the names of Just, and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive Power to compel men equally to the performance of their Covenants…. Where there is no Common-wealth, there nothing is Unjust.”

* 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.

* 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.

* Statesmen and diplomats are rarely punished for lying, especially if they were telling lies to other countries. Probably the only exception to this rule involves cases where it becomes known that a leader lied to his fellow citizens about a policy that
failed in ways that obviously damage the national interest.

* 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.”

* Sir Henry Wotton, the seventeenth-century British diplomat, once remarked that an ambassador is “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

* Israel lied to the United States in the 1960s about its nascent nuclear weapons program because it feared that Washington would force the Jewish state to shut down the project if it acknowledged what was really going on at the Dimona nuclear complex. “This is one program,” Henry Kissinger wrote in 1969, “on which the Israelis have persistently deceived us.” Another case in point was when the Soviets placed offensive missiles in Cuba in 1963 after they had repeatedly assured the Kennedy administration that they would not take that dangerous step. Their hope was to present the president “with a fait accompli.”

* Anarchy pushes states to be vigilant in their dealings with each other, especially when national security issues are at play. But that is not the case inside most states, where large numbers of people, including educated elites, are predisposed to trust their government, whose most important job, after all, is to protect them.

* Irving Kristol: “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.”

* Hitler, for example, closely monitored the German people’s thinking about all kinds of issues, and went to great lengths to ensure that his policies enjoyed widespread public support. His regime, as Ian Kershaw reminds us, was “acutely aware of the need to manufacture consensus.”

* Comparing the amount of threat inflation in each of the major powers during World War I illustrates how geography influences the rhetoric that leaders employ to describe their adversaries. There was much less fearmongering about the German threat in France and Russia than there was in Britain and the United States. This is hardly surprising, since the two Anglo-Saxon countries are offshore balancers; in contrast, France and Russia not only shared a border with the Kaiserreich, but they were also fighting the German army on their own territory.

* 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 that portray it in a favorable 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.

* The creation of national myths, however, is not simply a case of elites concocting false stories and transmitting them to their publics. In fact, the common people invariably hunger for these myths; they want to be told stories about the past in which
they are portrayed as the white hats and opposing nations as the black hats. In effect, nationalist mythmaking is driven from
below as well as from above.

* In the wake of World War II, for example, German elites created the myth that their military—the Wehrmacht—had little to do with the mass killings of innocent civilians on the Eastern Front during that brutal war. It was said that the SS—which represented a much narrower slice of German society and was closely identified with Hitler—was largely responsible for those vast horrors. The Wehrmacht, according to this legend, had “clean hands.”

The United States largely bought into this false story during the early years of the Cold War, because it was then working closely with former Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and former members of the Wehrmacht, and also because it was committed to rehabilitating the German army and making it an integral part of NATO. Not surprisingly, as Christopher Simpson notes in his book about Washington’s recruitment of Nazis after Word War II, “a review of the more popular histories of the war published in the West during those years, with a few lonely exceptions, leaves the distinct impression that the savageries of the Holocaust were strictly the SS’s responsibility…”

* It is also sometimes feasible for a state with an influential diaspora to export its myths to the countries where the diaspora is located. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon involves Israel and the American Jewish community. There was no way that the Zionists could create a Jewish state in Palestine without doing large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Arab population that had been living there for centuries. This point was widely recognized by the Zionist leadership well before Israel was created. The opportunity to expel the Palestinians came in early 1948 when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and the Zionists in the wake of the UN decision to partition Palestine into two states. The Zionists cleansed roughly 700,000 Palestinians from the land that became Israel, and adamantly refused to let them return to their homes once the fighting stopped. Of course, this was a story that cast Israel in the role of the victimizer and would make it difficult for the fledgling state to win friends and influence people around the world, especially in the United States.

Not surprisingly, Israel and its American friends went to great lengths after the events of 1948 to blame the expulsion of the Palestinians on the victims themselves. According to the myth that was invented, the Palestinians were not cleansed by the Zionists; instead, they were said to have fled their homes because the surrounding Arab countries told them to move out so that their armies could move in and drive the Jews into the sea. The Palestinians could then return home after the Jews had been cleansed from the land. This story was widely accepted not only in Israel but also in the United States for about four decades, and it played a key role in convincing many Americans to look favorably upon Israel in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Israeli scholars, however, have demolished that myth and others over the past two decades, and the new history has slowly begun to affect the discourse in the United States about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that make at least some Americans less sympathetic to Israel’s past and present actions toward the Palestinians.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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