'Why Leaders Lie,' Whether You Believe It Or Not When is it all right for leaders to lie to other leaders, other nations — or their own? Political scientist John Mearsheimer poses the provocative question in his new book.

'Why Leaders Lie,' Whether You Believe It Or Not

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John Mearsheimer proposes a provocative question in his new book: When is it all right for leaders to lie to other leaders, other nations, or their own? Professor Mearsheimer, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago, provoked a lot of controversy with his last book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." He joins us from Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor JOHN MEARSHEIMER (Political Science, University of Chicago; Author, "Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics," "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"): My pleasure being here.

SIMON: And is it always wrong for leaders to lie?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: No. It's sometimes - I'm sad to say - makes good strategic sense for leaders to lie not only to other countries but even their own people. The fact is that strategic lying is a useful tool of state craft.

SIMON: Professor Mearsheimer's new book is called "Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics." And I have to ask you: do people ask you why is the book with that title only 102 pages long?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yes. The fact is that most people believe that leaders lie all the time. And I thought that when I first began the book. But I discovered actually not many examples of leaders lying to other countries and even not that many examples of leaders lying to their own public.

And just to show you how jaded most people are, they refuse to believe that. And they tell me I'm just not looking hard enough. There have to be countless examples out there. But the truth is there's not that much lying in international politics.

SIMON: And we should make plain you're not sympathetic to it as a human principle. The phrase you deploy is strategic deception I think.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yeah. I mean, it pains me to actually make the argument that lying is sometimes a good thing. But international politics, as you know, is a rough business. And sometimes it makes very good sense to lie. I think the best example of this is how John F. Kennedy ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Khrushchev would only agree to take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba if Kennedy would take the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. But Kennedy understood that if the American public and the Europeans, especially the Turks, found out that we were taking the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey that that would cause him enormous problems. And he probably wouldnt be able to consummate the deal.

So he told Khrushchev, in effect, that Khrushchev could not spell out the details of the agreement. And he told Khrushchev that if he was asked whether or not this deal had been cut, he would lie and his lieutenants would lie and said no such deal had been cut.

Now, I think that lie made eminently good sense because it helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it think, given that general thermal nuclear war might have resulted if that crisis had not ended, it made sense for Kennedy to lie.

SIMON: Let me follow up a bit. Recognizing certainly that averting thermal nuclear wars - a goal devoutly to be desired - did that deception that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, have the effect of establishing what amounts to a false gold standard for successful U.S. action; because it wasnt advertised that a compromise had ended the crisis but standing firm and not buckling?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: I think you can make that argument. I think it's very rarely the case that any policy decision is all good. There's almost always some downside, and I think thats true.

I also think, you know, in that particular case, Kennedy was lying to the American public. And for a democracy, I think it's not a particularly healthy thing for a leader to lie to his or her public. But the fact is that there are cases where it sometimes makes very good sense.

SIMON: Do you have, Professor Mearsheimer, any general reaction to WikiLeaks?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, Im very interested in WikiLeaks. One of the key arguments in the book that I make, is that leaders appear to lie less often to other countries than they do to their own publics. And when you look at the WikiLeaks documents that have been released so far, what you see is that most of the lies - at least most of the lies that I've been able to uncover -involve leaders lying to their own public, not lying to other countries.

SIMON: You seem to have certain tolerance in the book for what we call spinning, in part because if everybody knows thats what you're doing they can read the tea leaves, or they can read between your lines.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Right. I think that spinning is not lying. It's where people exaggerate their positive attributes and downplay or conceal their negative attributes.

If you were to ask President Obama how does he think about the state of the economy today and where it's headed, he would spin like crazy. He would emphasize all the positive aspects of our present economic situation. And he would downplay or not talk about the more negative aspects. I think politicians are perennial spinners. This is what they do for a living.

But spinning is very different than lying. Lying is where you actually betray someone's trust by telling him or her something that you know to be false. And it's very difficult for that person to be able to figure that you're lying, because the person trusts you, and you say this lie with great assurance.

SIMON: John Mearsheimer who's the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His new book, "Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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