Skip to main content

Reviewed by John Coffey

John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), ISBN-13: 978-0199758739, 142 pp., $21.95

“Then it’s appropriate for the rulers,” Socrates explained to his young student, Adeimantus, “if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens, while all the rest must not put their hands to anything of the sort.”1 Rulers must employ “noble lies” for the sake of the city, particularly about “ancient things,” such as the city’s founding, where it is difficult to know the truth, and other “unspeakable secrets” to be told circumspectly only to a few.

The distinguished political scientist at the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer, has written an intriguing essay about lying as a tool of statecraft. Mearsheimer goes beyond the relative utility of lying to draw the “lessons” of its use for the future of American foreign policy. To understand the author’s intention, this book should be read along with its complementary article, “Imperial by Design.”2

Mearsheimer identifies five types of strategic lies: inter-state lies, fear mongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist myth making, and liberal lies. He maintains that the instances of leaders lying to each other are actually few, due to the difficulty of getting away with it and because frequent practice would make communication impossible. Inter-state lies for strategic advantage include, for example: exaggerating a state’s capability to deter/coerce an adversary (e.g., Hitler’s exaggeration of German military power in the 1930s); minimizing/concealing a military capability (e.g., Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1960s); threatening an attack to deter a rival (e.g., NATO’s nuclear policy during the Cold War). Mearsheimer gives numerous illustrations of other types of strategic lies, but he is mainly concerned with fear mongering and its effects because he believes that will pose the chief temptation for future American leaders.

Leaders resort to fear mongering when they perceive an emerging threat, but exaggerate the danger to rouse public support for their policies. Kemal Atatürk stated the stratagem: “For the people, despite the people.” Examples include: Secretary of State Acheson’s portrayal of the Soviet threat in the late 1940s; Franklin Roosevelt’s use of the USS Greer incident in 1941; Lyndon Johnson’s manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964; and the George W. Bush administration’s run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

International lies, Mearsheimer argues, have harmful effects. On the domestic front, potential for blowback occurs in the corruption of the political process; internationally, the possibility of backfiring can cause the state more harm than good. In particular, fear mongering fosters a political culture of dishonesty, risks foreign policy disasters, and loses public support when people discover they’ve been bamboozled (e.g., Vietnam and George W. Bush’s Iraq war).

What are the “lessons” for American foreign policy that Mearsheimer wishes to draw? As a realist, he repudiates what he describes as the foreign-policy establishment consensus that America has a responsibility “not only to police the entire globe, but to try to shape the politics of individual countries.” He doubts the fiascos of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will dampen the “foreign-policy elite’s enthusiasm for reshaping the world at the end of a rifle barrel.” Mearsheimer fears that more crusades and misbegotten attempts at “running the world” mean that the “United States is going to be deeply involved in global politics for the foreseeable future.” Despite the security that its “hard power” and two big oceans guarantee America, our leaders will be tempted to fear monger to justify distant wars of choice, with all their potential for international debacles and corrosion of democratic institutions at home. Mearsheimer concludes: “Given America’s global ambitions, therefore, we should expect fear mongering to be a constant feature in its national security discourse in the years ahead.”

The author leaves some key questions open-ended. Does he imply that the United States should abandon a global role? What does he mean to suggest that the U.S. could choose not to be “deeply involved in global politics?” The notion that America’s security is guaranteed by its “hard power” and fortuitous geographical location is surely not serious. At the Founding Alexander Hamilton recognized America could not withdraw from the world’s affairs: “The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbors.”3 America would not escape the world’s political calamities; therefore, government must have all the means necessary to protect its security. Above all, “if we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy.”4

In “Imperial by Design” Mearsheimer clarifies his intention and makes a compelling case for a new grand strategy to strengthen America’s position in the world. He rejects what he describes as a two-decades-old, bipartisan grand strategy of global dominance and democracy promotion, causing endless war, imperial meddling in others’ politics, and erosion of civil liberties at home. We should return to America’s traditional “grand strategy of offshore balancing” as the most effective way to deal with the threats facing the county. This strategy would aim to prevent any hostile hegemon from dominating three vital areas — Northeast Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf. The U.S. should have a robust intervention capability in those areas, but U.S. forces should be stationed over the horizon and employed only as a last resort, when local forces are unable to do the job. In East Asia, the U.S. could lead a balancing coalition of India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam to counter China. Offshore balancing would rely primarily on U.S. naval and air power instead of ground forces.

Mearsheimer’s criticism of the folly of seeking to refashion other countries in our democratic image is well taken. Yet he perhaps overstates this as the central theme of American foreign policy. The daily work of our foreign policy has nothing to do with reshaping others at gunpoint, but involves cooperation with partners on mutual security concerns. As Secretary Clinton stated at the Council on Foreign Relations, “the heart of America’s mission in the world today” is “to solve problems in concert with others.”5

This is the case in East Asia, where Secretary Gates describes the U.S. approach as using a mix of hard and soft power measures to help partners defend themselves.6 Partnership in maritime security and efforts to combat piracy and proliferation has been a critical mission. U.S. Pacific Command has worked with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others, providing training and equipment to secure their transit routes against use by drug and weapons smugglers and terrorists. In turn, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and China have cooperated in anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa. Similarly, the U.S. trains Special Forces and other security units in Central Asia to counter the spread of terrorism. Having successfully supported Colombia in its struggle with FARC and the drug cartels, the U.S. is now supporting Colombia’s role in training Mexican police and soldiers and court officers to battle the drug cartels ravaging Mexico.7

Fear is a salutary motive for concerted action against a common threat. Mearsheimer notes that a virtue of offshore balancing is to encourage other countries to take responsibility for containing an aspiring regional hegemon. That is precisely what is presently happening in East Asia, as Southeast Asian nations draw together to counter China’s aggressive bid for regional hegemony. At a July 2010, meeting in Hanoi of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other powers, Secretary Clinton rejected China’s claim to sovereignty over the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea. Led by Vietnam, eleven other nations backed the U.S., shocking China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, into walking out of the meeting, only to return later to remind other countries that they are small and China is big. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia are purchasing advanced weaponry from the U.S., France, India and Russia. Southeast Asian nations want a robust U.S. balancing role in the region. Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy reports that “most countries in Asia seem to be quietly bandwagoning with the United States to balance against China’s future power potential.”8

Mearsheimer’s apprehension about American democratic crusading in the world should be allayed in the coming age of economic austerity. Uncle Sam simply won’t have the dough for crusades. In The Frugal Superpower, Michael Mandelbaum shows how economic constraints will curtail America’s activist post-World War II role as the guarantor of international security and prosperity. Mandelbaum thinks the world’s peoples will be worse off with a retrenched America. The world will suffer the baleful results of a U.S. with too little power: “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.”9


1. The Republic of Plato, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 389 b-c; also 373d-e, 378a; 382d; 389b-c; 414d-415b.
2. John J. Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design,” The National Interest (Jan./Feb., 2011) , 16-34.
3. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 24, The Federalist Papers, introd. Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961).
4. Hamilton, Federalist Nos. 24, 36.
5. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Foreign Policy Address at the Council on Foreign Relations,” Washington, D.C., July 15, 2009.
6. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore, May 30, 2009; “Helping Others Defend Themselves: The Future of U.S. Security Assistance,” Foreign Affairs (May/June, 2010), 2-6; and speech at Keio University, Tokyo, Jan. 14, 2011; also interview with Admiral William J. Fallon, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (Winter/Spring, 2009), 115-130.
7. David Ignatius, “Military Partnerships May Be the Nation’s Best Path to Peace,” Washington Post, 1/28/10; Juan Forero, “Columbia Stepping Up Anti-Drug Training of Mexico’s Army, Police,” Washington Post, 1/22/11.
8. John Pomfret, “Concerned About China’s Rise, Southeast Asian Nations Build Up Militaries,” Washington Post, 8/9/10; and “China’s Rise Prompts Vietnam to Strengthen Ties to Other Nations,” Washington Post, 10/30/10.
9. Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York: Public Affairs, 2010), p. 194.


authorJohn W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


Comments are closed.