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Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield

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  • Levy, Jack S.
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    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.

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    Article provided by Cambridge University Press in its journal International Organization.

    Volume (Year): 48 (1994)
    Issue (Month): 02 (March)
    Pages: 279-312

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    Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:48:y:1994:i:02:p:279-312_02
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