I Changed My Mind…

The piece about Bill Clinton I wish I could take back, and nine other things about which I no longer hold the same opinion.


In most countries, politicians try to impress the citizenry with their command of the issues and their deep insight into important political problems. In the United States, for example, Americans will spend the next two years watching a passel of Republicans and at least one Democrat try to convince voters that they know a whole bunch about foreign policy, the economy, education, the Constitution, climate change, terrorism, and a zillion other topics, as each tries to persuade the electorate to make him or her president.

What you probably won’t hear, however, is a candidate saying, “Here’s an issue where I was dead wrong, and here’s how I eventually figured out that what I had previously believed was a lot of hokum.” Aspiring leaders rarely admit past errors because to do so might make voters doubt their present judgment, and it leaves a candidate vulnerable to accusations of pandering or flip-flopping.

Instead, most aspiring candidates try to portray themselves as having consistently held the right views since early childhood. That tendency is unfortunate, however, because the ability to learn from experience and revise one’s views over time is a more desirable quality in a leader than rigid and blinkered certainty. As John Maynard Keynes allegedly responded to a charge of inconsistency: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

I’m not a politician or likely to become one (cue the audible sigh of relief from most readers). Instead, I’ve been trying to understand international politics for more than three decades. And over time I’ve changed my mind about a fair number of academic, historical, and contemporary issues. I used to believe a number of things that turned out not to be correct, and there are others where at a minimum I know have considerable doubts. And guess what? Changing my mind isn’t all that painful a process; in fact, it can be both liberating and enjoyable to realize that earlier beliefs were mistaken.

To inspire a bit more reflection and self-criticism by both academics and maybe even a few politicos, I offer here the Top 10 Things About Which I Changed My Mind.

No. 1: The origins of World War I

I’ve been reading and teaching about the causes of World War I since I got my first academic job, but my account of how and why the war broke out has changed significantly over the years. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, I was heavily influenced by Richard Ned Lebow’s Between Peace and War, which portrays the July Crisis as a series of misperceptions and tragic accidents, driven by both organizational and psychological pathologies. I also embraced the “cult of the offensive” explanation offered by Jack Snyder and Stephen Van Evera, which links the war to widespread European beliefs that conquest was easy and that the war would be very short and cheap. I also read key works from the “Fischer school” (which emphasizes German responsibility), but I saw that as a background condition rather than the primary cause.

But over the years, I began to rethink this interpretation, and my understanding was greatly influenced by my former student Dale Copeland’s detailed analysis in his book, The Origins of Major War. He pins the blame almost entirely on Germany — and especially Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg — and I have yet to see any account that does a better job of uncovering the central cause of the war. But given how historiographical traditions keep evolving, and given the ability of new theories to shape how we view the past, I could always change my mind again in the future.

No. 2: The transformative power of social science

When I was in graduate school, I believed social science provided powerful analytic tools that could resolve any number of political issues at home and abroad. Like a good Progressive Era reformer, I believed a well-trained army of policy-relevant academics could ask the right questions, collect the right evidence, perform careful and objective analysis, debate and refine their findings, and then announce their solutions to a grateful world. Policymakers would embrace the scholars’ enlightened wisdom and quickly proceed to implement the prescribed reforms. Don’t laugh at my naiveté: I was young, ignorant, and filled with youthful zeal.

Since those early days, I’ve acquired a healthier respect for the vagaries of politics and a greater humility about what social science can do. In international relations, at least, none of our theories are all that powerful, the data are often poor, and coming up with good solutions to many thorny problems is difficult. Unintended consequences and second-order effects abound, and policymakers often reject good advice for their own selfish reasons. Don’t get me wrong: I still think systematic historical and social science inquiry is essential to better policymaking; I just don’t think it’s the magic bullet that I once hoped it could be.

No. 3: The power of quantitative analysis

I originally intended to pursue a career in biochemistry, and I was initially enamored with quantitative approaches to international relations because they seemed more “scientific.” I still believe statistical tools, formal models, and other mathematical techniques are valuable parts of the social science tool kit, but I’ve become more sensitive to the limits of all extant methods and increasingly skeptical of anyone who claims to have discovered the one true way to analyze international politics. As I’ve argued elsewhere, maintaining a diverse intellectual ecosystem is essential in the study of politics because none of our tools or methods is useful for all subjects and we never know in advance what sort of problems will demand our attention. Better a well-stocked tool kit than one big hammer.

No. 4: The importance of ideology

I was drawn to realism from the very beginning because I thought it explained the historical record more persuasively than other intellectual traditions. Not surprisingly, therefore, I believed ideology had only limited effects on state behavior and that the competitive pressures that operate in an anarchic system inevitably pressure states to compromise or abandon hard-core ideological beliefs. I still think power politics dominates, but I’d concede more causal weight to ideology today than I would have back in the early 1980s. Insights from the Kremlin’s archives suggest that Marxism-Leninism shaped how Soviet leaders viewed the world in sometimes powerful ways, and the ideology of American “exceptionalism” has had an enduring impact on U.S. behavior as well. All of this is another way of saying that mono-causal explanations rarely suffice and that scholars need to be open to rethinking their initial theoretical commitments.

No. 5: The role of culture

Similarly, I used to have a certain contempt for cultural explanations of political phenomena. Whenever somebody invoked “culture” to explain some aspect of political behavior, I thought it was a lazy catchall category one could invoke to account for something one didn’t really understand. I now regard my youthful dismissal of culture as mostly just plain dumb, and I have become more sympathetic to explanations that employ well-specified definitions of culture. This shift began after I had worked at several different universities and had noticed how much their intellectual cultures differed despite their other similarities. Stanford is not Berkeley is not Harvard is not Princeton is not the University of Chicago, just as New Orleans is not New England and Sweden is not Vietnam or Brazil. A further implication: Trying to shape the politics and society of an alien culture is a fool’s errand because even well-intentioned actions generate side effects that foreign actors won’t have anticipated.

No. 6: U.S. nuclear strategy

I used to be dead wrong about U.S. nuclear weapons policy. After reading the early nuclear strategists and books like Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith’s How Much Is Enough?, I assumed that the United States was firmly committed to a policy of nuclear deterrence via mutual assured destruction. But the work of Desmond Ball, David Alan Rosenberg, Robert Jervis, Fred Kaplan, Bruce Blair, and many others revolutionized my understanding of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. We now know that the United States was never content with mutual assured destruction and that the Pentagon has always devoted vast sums to developing counterforce capabilities and wanted to be able to fight and win a nuclear war if it had to. This is not to say that the United States wants or intends to ever fight a nuclear war, but it sought nuclear superiority over any and all rivals since the very beginning of the nuclear age and continues to pursue that goal today.

No. 7: Reconstructing Afghanistan

In the first article I wrote after the 9/11 attacks, I endorsed the invasion of Afghanistan and called for a major U.S. and international effort to rebuild the country once the Taliban was ousted. It’s possible that such an effort would have succeeded had George W. Bush and the neoconservatives not galloped off to invade Iraq in 2003, but I’m no longer convinced that this would have been the case. The problem, I now believe, is that trying to construct a Western-style state in Afghanistan was a vast project and was virtually certain to trigger all sorts of resistance and unintended consequences. This would require the work of several generations, and there are a zillion ways the work could get derailed even if outside forces had the best of intentions, patience, resources, and lots of smart people doing the work. Perhaps a more limited set of goals would have succeeded, but even that is not certain. I still agree with a lot of what I wrote back in 2001, but I was too sanguine about our ability to do more than just topple the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden.

No. 8: Israel

As is the case with a lot of Americans, my early views on Israel were shaped by writers like Leon Uris, by reading about the horrific experience of the Holocaust, and by the influence of Israeli and Zionist friends. The strongly pro-Zionist coverage of Middle East issues in the U.S. media undoubtedly reinforced that view. When I began researching my dissertation and first book, however, I become aware that there was an alternative view of these events, though I did not explore the tension between these perspectives at the time. By the mid-1990s, however, the work of Israel’s “new historians” (e.g., Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris, etc.) and a number of other writers had provided a more complicated and nuanced picture of Israel’s founding and subsequent conduct. While still supportive of Israel’s creation, over time I became more critical of its actions and more concerned about the costs of the “special relationship” for the United States. The consequences of that policy became increasingly clear after 9/11, of course, and eventually led to my book with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby. Nothing that has happened since that book was published has undermined its basic thesis, but subsequent events have made me more pessimistic about the prospects for peace in the near-to-medium term.

No. 9: Can democracies conduct an effective foreign policy?

When I first got seriously interested in foreign affairs, reading about statesmen like Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, or Henry Kissinger was inspiring and probably gave me an unwarranted faith in the maturity and gravitas of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. I used to be very comfortable with the “rational actor” assumption, for example, but that faith is harder to maintain when one sees how much domestic politics and other pathologies intrude on the policy process. I used to have a lot of faith in the “marketplace of ideas” — i.e., the idea that democratic debate can weed out bad ideas and allow mistaken initiatives to be corrected — but the Iraq War and some other events showed me that the “marketplace” is usually warped by secrecy, strategic leaking, interest group politics, media bias, and other forms of opportunism and corruption. Add to this the enduring alliance between Democratic liberal interventionists and Republican neoconservatives, and it’s easy to see why a relative outsider like Barack Obama could become president and end up repeating many of the same mistakes as his predecessors. The silver lining: The United States is in such a favorable position that it may not need to have a very effective foreign policy. Good thing.

No. 10: The Clinton administration

Back in 2000, Foreign Affairs published my article “Two Cheers for Clinton’s Foreign Policy.” It was a limited defense of Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy record, and I argued that his performance was better than many believed (and much better than his Republican critics maintained). Over time, however, I’ve concluded that my assessment was too lenient. In particular, several of Clinton’s decisions — most notably “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf and NATO expansion — helped sow the seeds of much future trouble. Similarly, there were important missed opportunities during Clinton’s tenure — most notably the failed Oslo peace process in the Middle East — and the consequences of that failure have loomed ever larger with the passage of time. If there is one article on my CV that I’d like to go back and rewrite, it would be that one.

There’s my list, and I’m sure I could add more items with a bit more thought. Whether you are a student, a scholar, an aspiring policy wonk, or a would-be public official, I encourage you to perform a similar exercise from time to time. You don’t necessarily have to air your errors in public, but being aware of how each of us changes our views over time is good protection against the arrogant overconfidence that often contains the seeds of foreign-policy disaster.

John Moore/Getty Images

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

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