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Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield


  • Levy, Jack S.


Do political leaders learn from historical experience, and do the lessons of history influence their foreign policy preferences and decisions? It appears that decision makers are always seeking to avoid the failures of the past and that generals are always fighting the last war. The “lessons of Munich” were invoked by Harry Truman in Korea, Anthony Eden in Suez, John Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, and George Bush in the Persian Gulf War. The “lessons of Korea” influenced American debates about Indochina, and the “lessons of Vietnam” were advanced in debates about crises in the Persian Gulf and in Bosnia. Statesmen at Versailles sought to avoid the mistakes of Vienna and those at Bretton Woods, the errors of the Great Depression. Masada still moves the Israelis, and Kosovo drives the Serbs. Inferences from experience and the myths that accompany them often have a far greater impact on policy than is warranted by standard rules of evidence. As J. Steinberg argues, in words that apply equally well to the Munich analogy and the Vietnam syndrome, memories of the British capture of the neutral Danish fleet at Copenhagen in 1807 (the “Copenhagen complex”) “seeped into men's perceptions and became part of the vocabulary of political life,” and it influenced German decision making for a century.

Suggested Citation

  • Levy, Jack S., 1994. "Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 48(02), pages 279-312, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:48:y:1994:i:02:p:279-312_02

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    Cited by:

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    2. Andrew Geddes, 2014. "Relationships between Research and Policy on Migration in the European Union: A Practice-Based Analysis," EUI-RSCAS Working Papers p0363, European University Institute (EUI), Robert Schuman Centre of Advanced Studies (RSCAS).
    3. Moosung Lee, 2016. "The EU, regional cooperation, and the North Korean nuclear crisis," Asia Europe Journal, Springer, vol. 14(4), pages 401-415, December.
    4. David Lake, 2007. "Delegating divisible sovereignty: Sweeping a conceptual minefield," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 2(3), pages 219-237, September.
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    6. Lauge N. Skovgaard Poulsen & Emma Aisbett, 2011. "When the Claim Hits: Bilateral Investment Treaties and Bounded Rational Learning," Crawford School Research Papers 1105, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
    7. Bidjan Nashat & Sandra Speer & Raoul Blindenbacher, 2013. "Adding Value to Evaluations : Applying the Governmental Learning Spiral for Evaluation-Based Learning," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 16666.
    8. Nedergaard, Peter, 2007. "Mutual learning in the European employment strategy: how? how much?," MPRA Paper 33108, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Nedergaard, Peter, 2005. "Transnational learning processes: European and Nordic experiences in the employment field," MPRA Paper 33104, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    10. Beth Simmons & Jens Hainmueller, 2005. "Can Domestic Institutions Explain Exchange Rate Regime Choice? The Political Economy of Monetary Institutions Reconsidered," International Finance 0505011, EconWPA.
    11. Nedergaard, Peter, 2005. "The analysis of mutual learning processes in the European employment strategy: a social constructivist approach," MPRA Paper 33105, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    12. Katja Biedenkopf, 2012. "Emissions Trading - A Transatlantic Journey for an Idea?," KFG Working Papers p0045, Free University Berlin.
    13. Stephen Kaplan, 2016. "Fighting Past Economic Wars: Crisis and Austerity in Latin America," Working Papers 2015-13, The George Washington University, Institute for International Economic Policy.
    14. Meseguer, Covadonga, 2006. "Learning and economic policy choices," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 22(1), pages 156-178, March.
    15. Stephen B. Kaplan, 2014. "Political Economy of Macroeconomic Policymaking: Economic Crises and Technocratic Governance," Working Papers 2014-18, The George Washington University, Institute for International Economic Policy.
    16. Claire Dunlop, 2010. "The temporal dimension of knowledge and the limits of policy appraisal: biofuels policy in the UK," Policy Sciences, Springer;Society of Policy Sciences, vol. 43(4), pages 343-363, December.

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