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Book review: Why Leaders Lie

In this age of spin doctors, Wikileaks and wars waged on questionable grounds, the idea that people- and more specifically, leaders- lie in the realm of international relations is not particularly far-fetched or surprising.

Why Leaders Lie: The truth about lying in international politics

By John Mearsheimer (Bloomsbury, 2011) $36.99

In this age of spin doctors, Wikileaks and wars waged on the questionable grounds, the idea that people – and more specifically, leaders – lie in the realm of international relations is not particularly far-fetched or surprising.

But, until now, no one’s actually written about it.

John Mearsheimer, a “card carrying realist” and professor of political science at the University of Chicago, attempts to outline in this book a framework for analysing porky-telling in international politics.

We can all agree that telling lies is unacceptable. However, Mearsheimer says leaders often have good strategic reasons to lie to their people and, on occasion, lie to other countries.

What Mearsheimer finds, though, is that leaders don’t all that often lie to one another – they’re far more likely to lie to their own people: you and me.

Take, for instance, the lead-up to the 2002 war in Iraq. Both George W Bush and Tony Blair had the task of convincing reluctant publics to support going to war against a country that, truth be told, did not pose as big a threat as was made out to be. Neither Bush nor Blair lied for personal gain; they lied because it was deemed to be in the national interest.

It’s these lies, the ones told to a leader’s own people, that Mearsheimer considers to be the most dangerous - “they are more likely to backfire and damage a state’s strategic position than the lies that leaders tell other states”.

Where Mearsheimer’s book will, I think, have a lasting impact is in the inevitable analysis of the thousands and thousands of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.

The cables now provide us with the biggest pointers to uncovering, no doubt, many more instances of how leaders have lied, and continue to lie, to their citizens on matters of foreign policy.