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Core Skill: Rethinking

Francis Fukuyama tells Big Think about the pressures that one must overcome in rethinking positions–in his case, his views on the Iraq War–and how he overcame those pressures. 

The ability to rethink is one of the core skills vital to sucess in the 21st century. Consider, for instance, the failure of businesses to rethink the viability of their products in the context of our rapidly evolving consumer culture. Or consider the consequences if the government fails to rethink Entitlement programs such as Medicare in the context of the deficit and the needs of an aging population that will live longer than any generation before

There is a blindness inherent in our discourse that prevents individuals and organizations from finding innovative solutions to these problems. To get out of this rut, what is required is the ability to rethink beliefs that are often fundamental to our worldview. 

The follwoing story, conveyed by Francis Fukuyama to Big Think, illustrates some of the considerable forces that often hinder our ability to rethink. One is the desire to please. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics. If a politician takes a forward-looking yet unpopular position on an issue–or one that is out of synch with the wishes of his party’s base–he or she will pay the consequences and stand to face a tough primary or lose a general election. 

It is well-documented how our public policy has suffered, at the peril of the U.S. falling behind countries like China, due to the inability of policymakers to put longterm goals ahead of the demands of the present. 

In Fukuyama’s case, the fear he had to overcome in expressing his rethink of the Iraq War was the damage such an action would have on his professional reputation. Fukuyama was not an elected official, but was an influential figure in the neoconservative movement. Fukuyama was one of 40 signatories of a letter to President George W. Bush, written by William Kristol, calling for the invasion of Iraq less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 

Fukuyama, who had become well-known outside neoconservative circles due to the success and notoriety of his book, The End of History and the Last Man, very publically reversed course on Iraq in a New York Times Magazine article in 2006 in which he also disassociated himself from the neoconservative movement in general. He argued the so-called ‘Bush Doctrine‘ was “in shambles” as a result of the invasion and ongoing insurrection: “By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadist terrorists.”

His pronouncements about the leaders of the neoconservative movement were even more inflammatory:

“In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.”

Calling out the leaders of a movement you hung your hat with for decades as ‘Leninist’ takes some guts. Fukuyama risked, among other things, tarnishing a reputation that he had cultivated over the course of a distinguished career. In his interview with Big Think, Fukuyama describes all that he had to overcome in rethinking his position on Iraq, and how he did it:


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