Stephen M. Walt

More to read from Mearsheimer

While I’ve been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I’d be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn’t take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works. The first is a big article in ...

While I’ve been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I’d be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn’t take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.

The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America’s recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former’s blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power.  Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America’s core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I’m not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.

The second item is a short book: Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics.   Here John identifies the different types of lies that governments tell, and draws careful distinctions between different types of deception (lying, "spinning" and concealment).  For me, his most striking finding is that although governments do lie to each other on occasion, genuine inter-state lying is relatively rare.  The reason is simple: states don’t trust each other anyway, so they don’t accept each other’s statements at face value and do their best to verify what other states tell them. This means that most lies will get detected (and all states know this), so there isn’t much point in trying to tell a bald-faced lie to another government. By contrast, both democratic and authoritarian governments lie to their own people with remarkable frequency. (I might add that so far, the Wikileaks revelations seem to bear this out). John acknowledges that it is sometimes necessary for leaders to lie, but he cautions that excessive lying is deeply corrosive to the political order and tends to lead to widespread corruption and social harm.

The book is only 102 pages of text, and it would make a great little stocking stuffer for the strategist (or ethicist) on your list.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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