“It is hard to hide a lie for a long period”, writes John Mearsheimer – and the good news is that his study of historical records suggests that states do not commonly lie to each other. Indeed, this leading professor of political science says that he sometimes struggled to find examples for this slim, lucid and valuable taxonomy of lies in the international arena.
The bad news, though, is that lies can have huge, lingering consequences. The chief exhibit in this book is the war in Iraq, clearly the spur to Mearsheimer’s study. A lesser exhibit – indeed, it is barely explored – is the lie about Greece’s finances that enabled the country to adopt the euro. That was one of ten types of ‘inter-state’ lies that Mearsheimer lists: a rare attempt to get a better deal for a country during treaty negotiations.
Why is lying not more frequent in inter-state relations? He argues that a liar acquires a bad reputation, and the short-term benefits of lying rarely outweigh the potential gains derived from not being duplicitous. Moreover, states limit other states’ opportunity to lie by habitually applying Ronald Reagan’s maxim about the Soviet nuclear arsenal, “Trust, but verify”. Mearsheimer does not consider the EU specifically, but his analysis suggests that the EU is well inoculated against lies: the costs of lying surely rise in an environment of constant negotiation in which numerous long-term benefits can be won.
But, unfortunately, the inter-state lie is just one of seven categories of lies that states tell about foreign policy (and occupy just 20 pages of this volume).
Mearsheimer focuses on four principal reasons why politicians lie to promote their foreign-policy goals. One is to highlight dangers posed by another state that – politicians believe – are not fully appreciated by the public. Politicians forge national myths. They tell ‘liberal lies’ to conceal their failures to live up to self-professed values. They opt for strategic cover-ups to hide mistakes and to push through controversial policies.
These are lies that liars see as having social merit – or, as Mearsheimer says, this is lying in keeping with a slogan from the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk: “For the people, despite the people”. The purpose of this book is to explore if, when, how and how much such lies really are useful.
Just how tricky it can be to weigh up the redeeming social merits is evident from two examples. During the war, in order to maintain public support for ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin and his people, the western Allies publicly backed Soviet claims that the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn was the work of the Nazis. After the war, to help Germany re-build an army capable of countering the Soviet threat, they largely accepted a German myth that, unlike the SS, ordinary German soldiers in the Wehrmacht were not responsible for wartime atrocities.
Why leaders lie: the truth about lying in international politics
By John Mearsheimer
Duckworth Overlook (120 pages)€14
Those examples are emblematic of a predictable conclusion, that lying is more common in war than in peace. But other hothouses for lying should give the EU pause for thought as it responds to its crises of trust, debt and growth: Mearsheimer concludes that lying increases during crises, during periods of mounting rivalry, and when there is a sense of injustice.
While such general findings apply to the EU, Mearsheimer’s analysis does not encompass the EU’s specific characteristics. Mearsheimer focuses on lying in an anarchic international system, and on foreign-policy lies on the domestic political stage. So where does a supra-national, un-anarchic system like the EU fit?
A separate, EU-specific study would be needed. And Mearsheimer’s book suggests that that study would have to shift its focus.
Mearsheimer has chosen a narrow definition of lying: the deliberate telling of falsehoods to deceive the other side. He distinguishes this from other forms of deception: ‘spinning’ – typically, steering attention to details more in line with a government’s political message – and ‘concealment’. An EU-focused doppelganger of Mearsheimer could, with justification, dwell more on spin than on lying.
But the most pertinent focus might be on concealment at the EU level. The primary watchdog of the EU – the European Court of Auditors – is now 37 years old, and yet the audit of the EU budget that it published in November was the first ever to be followed by a European Commission decision to name and shame the worst managers of EU funds (Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic). It is hard to imagine Mearsheimer finding socially redeeming features in decades of such concealment – or that this was “for the people, despite the people”.
This article originally did not indicate that the decision to name and shame the worst managers of EU money was made by the European Commission. Our apologies.