Why Leaders Lie: Summary & Review

why leaders lie book cover

Why Leaders Lie (2011) examines the deception that goes on among politicians at the international level as well as how it compares with politicians’ behavior with the internal electorate.   

About the Author:
John Joseph Mearsheimer is an American political scientist and international relations scholar from the realist school of thought, often associated with “realpolitik” and a Machiavellian and amoral approach. John Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Spinning VS Lying

The author says there are several different form of deceptions:

  • Lying
  • Spinning
  • Concealment: withholding information that might undermine or weaken one’s position

Spinning is when a person telling a story emphasizes 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 favorable story.

Funny enough, only “lying” has a bad reputation, and only lying gives you a bad reputation:

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

This may be the reason why, the author says, leaders prefer to spin and conceal rather than outright lie -and nobody wants to be called a liar, even if it’s for a good cause-.
Nobody wants to be called a liar, even if it is for a good cause. This preference is reinforced by the fact that it is often difficult to lie without getting caught red-handed.

The 7 Types of Foreign Policy Lies

  1. Interstate lies are aimed directly at other countries either for the purpose of gaining a strategic advantage over them or prevent-ing them from gaining an advantage at your expense
  2. Fearmongering occurs when a leader lies to his own people about a foreign-policy threat that he believes they do not recognize or fully appreciate. The aim is to motivate the public to take the threat seriously and make the necessary sacrifices to counter it
  3. 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
    1. Ignoble cover-ups are when leaders lie about their blunders or unsuccessful policies for self-serving reasons
  4. Nationalist mythmaking 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.
    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.
  5. Liberal lies are designed to cover up the behavior of states when it contradicts the well-developed body of liberal norms that is widely accepted around the world and codified in international law
  6. 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.

Why Leaders Lie focuses exclusively on lies oin the service of the national interest, hence leaving out social imperiasm and ignoble cover-ups.

What Increases The Odds of Interstate Lying

  • Dangerous areas: countries located in dangerous areas where there is intense security competition
  • Crises
  • Rivalry

Nationalist Lies To Dupe The Gullibles

The author says that it’s the elites who make up the national myths for two reasons:

  1. Fuel group solidarity to prop up the state; to create a sense of nation-hood, which is essential for building and maintaining a viable nation-state
  2. To get the most out of the citizens, including their life: to instill a sense that they are part of a noble enterprise, which they should not only be proud of, but for which they should willing to endure significant hardships, including fighting and dying if necessary

Also read:

Great Leadership Is Great Manipulation: Jocko Willlink Case Study

Or watch this video:

However, it would be a mistake to think that people are empty recipients of leaders’ manipulation.
In truth, most people want to be duped and lied to:

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.

The Costs of Lying

Albeit the author calls the chapter “the downsides of international lying”, many of them apply to lying in general:

  • Creates a culture of dishonesty, therefore, it makes eminently good sense for leaders and their fellow citizens to work to minimize the amount of lying that takes place in their country
  • Make for poorer democracies, since 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
  • Public alienation, to the point where it loses faith in democratic government and is willing to countenance some form of authoritarian rule
  • Self-aggrandizing lies can help you in the short-term but harm you in the longer run: for example, Khrushchev’s lies about the Soviet missile force in the late 1950s scared the United States into significantly escalate the arms race when Khrushchev was hoping to slow it down and spend more money on economic and social programs
why leaders lie book cover


Avoid antagonizing other powers, it’s a smart strategy

On this website, we talk about “making friends, not enemies” as a general high-level principle.
One of the corollaries is that you don’t want to provoke others and make them bigger enemies than they already are.
One way of doing it is to avoid antagonizing others, and alarming them, like France and Great Britain did with Russia after World War II:

This logic was in evidence during the early days of the Cold War, when the countries of Western Europe created two mutual defense pacts: the Treaty of Dunkirk (1947) and the Treaty of Brussels (1948). Both agreements were said to be checks against a resurgent Germany, but in fact they were mainly designed to contain Soviet expansion in Europe. British and French leaders lied about the real purpose of these alliances because they did not want to antagonize the Soviet Union—which they saw as a serious threat—if they could avoid

Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing

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.
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.

Targeting civilians is not off-limits to avoid endless warfare

Duke political scientist Alexander Downes shows in his seminal book Targeting Civilians in War that “desperation to win and to save lives on one’s own side in costly, protracted wars of attrition causes belligerents to target enemy civilians.” Indeed, he shows that “democracies are somewhat more likely than nondemocracies to target civilians.”
Remember that the United States purposely killed about 900,000 Japanese civilians in the last five months of World War

Your enemy can’t be too bad: when the elites defend tyrants

British and American elites—including academics, journalists, and policymakers—went to considerable lengths 174/346 during World War II to portray Stalin in a favorable 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.


On the truth of the famous trope “the winners write history”:

General Curtis LeMay, who was in charge of that murderous bombing campaign, once remarked, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”


Talks of survival as if the world was in anarchy, as if there were no major alliances, and as if each country was constantly plotting war

The author seems to speak as if each country was in fear and risk of losing its sovereignty left and right.
He says:

The best way that states can maximize their prospects for survival is to gain power at their rivals’ expense.


That might be the case for Hong Kong, Taiwan, or some states bordering Russia.
But it’s not the case for much of the rest of the world, and least of all the “most important” areas of the world.

The world I’m living in is not so much about surivival.

And it’s not so much about invading either, as the author makes it out to be:

Third, a country’s leaders might downplay their hostile intentions toward another state to disguise an attack on it.

Is he talking about politics in the West?
Like for example, me as an Italian, the Italian prime minister visiting another country and downplaying Italy’s forces to prepare an attack?

This seems completely out of touch with the reality of most Western countries.

Of course, that’s not necessarily because people today are more “good”, but because nuclear weapons, supranational unions, supranational military pacts and supranational agreements made the gains of invasions slimmer and the costs incredibly high.
Most nations, even bigger ones, wouldn’t be able to invade a neighboring country without all other nearby countries either intervening militarily, or punishing with crippling social and economical sanctions.

So, for example, Austria is not at risk from Italy, Portugal is not at risk from Spain, and Belgium is not at risk from France.
Heck, even Canada is pretty safe from losing its sovereignty to the US, and that’s in spite the US being the biggest military power in the world.

Talks about leaders cheating for the “good for the country”, as if leaders weren’t interested more in their own selfish gains

For example:

In a dangerous world, leaders do what they must to insure their country’s survival.


leaders usually believe that defeat would do serious damage to their national interest.

Yeah, he’s partially right.
Some leaders most certainly care about their countries: even for selfish reasons a strong country, economy, military, or reputation is good for the leaders.
However, it’s naive to think that all leaders have their countries’ interests in mind first and foremost. Many leaders are more interested in their own political survival, rather than their countries.

For more, read DeMesquita’s work:

The Dictator’s Handbook: Summary & Review

Sometimes Not So “Realpolitik” After All (Naive?)

There seems to be a pervasive sense that most of the lies in Why Leaders Lie are to advance the national interest.

Even when talking about fearmongering the author focuses on fearmongering for the good of the country:

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.
As distasteful as this behavior might be, leaders do it because they believe that it serves the public interest, not to exploit their fellow citizens for personal gain.

There are several more similar examples in the book.

In my opinion instead most fearmongering is to the benefit of the leader, to accrue more power, and to get elected when campaigning on law and order.

Also read more on politicians’ manipulation:

The Psychology of Political Manipulation


  • The realpolitik approach

Albeit, as we say above, at times Why Leaders Lie almost feels naive and whitewashed towards leaders, it shares enough “realpolitik” wisdom on different topics.

  • Tough truths shared openly

As in the birth of Israel preying on Palestinians.


Why Leaders Lie is a good book to understand the dynamics of lying and deception a bit better.

I personally only partially agree with the author’s general stance that leaders lie because they think it is good for their country.
And I didn’t find the wisdom earth-shattering, and maybe the analysis wasn’t the deepest.
However, I did learn a few things and I really like the author.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.

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