The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why can’t world leaders ever admit they were wrong?

Vladimir Putin says he has no regrets. He's not the only world leader to be regret-free. What gives?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-President George W. Bush take a walk at the Bush family estate at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, in July 2007. Exactly zero regrets were expressed by both men.  (Klimentyev Mikhail/ITAR-TASS/Corbis)

At the end of an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something rather amazing:

Luciano Fontana: “One last question. What is your biggest regret in life? What do you consider a mistake that you would never want to make again?”
Vladimir Putin: “I will be quite frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. By the grace of God, I have nothing to regret in my life.”

Now this is a mildly extraordinary statement by a human, but not uncommon at all for a head of government. On the whole, great power leaders are not keen about admitting errors and mistakes. President Obama is commonly viewed as a leader who is more likely to admit error, and even he does not do it all that often. As for George W. Bush, well . . .

Sure, U.S. presidents have admitted error at times, but far less often than they actually err.

So as Putin’s response was making the rounds of Twitter last night, Adrian Chen made a request:

Because Adrian wrote such a great essay on Russian trolls, it seems only fair to reward his with an attempt at an answer. Let’s start with leaders in liberal democracies and then move to someone like Putin.

The most obvious answer is that leaders don’t think that they are wrong. Humans are really, really bad at admitting that they are wrong. It is quite easy to imagine politicians and policymakers who will be convinced of their rightness on an issue despite public opinion to the contrary. For example, Bush still does not regret the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite the heavy cost in blood and treasure and the meager benefits, if any, of the decision. I suspect Obama feels similarly about his refusal to engage U.S. forces in various trouble spots in the Middle East. Both of these presidents have clear and coherent worldviews about what constitutes a threat to the United States.

But what about policies where a leader probably is aware that things are not working out as well as expected? Well, here we get to the politics of admitting error. A key part of leadership is projecting confidence, and admitting mistakes is a lousy way to bolster people’s confidence in one’s leadership.

It’s more than that, however, and ties into a debate that transpired Monday about informed and  uninformed voters. As Jamelle Bouie noted in a robust defense of expanding the franchise, a lot of voters are uninformed — but there are a lot of political organizations that have an incentive to reach out to those voters: “This is why we have political parties, which spread information, persuade undecided voters, and activate preferences. In their drive to win elections, parties educate voters and mediate the political experience.”

But when political leaders admit error, however, that’s a moment that can cause even pure partisans to doubt their loyalties. And although opponents of that political leader might be happy to see that kind of candor, they are not going to switch their vote just because a president they dislike acknowledged being wrong. So from a political perspective, even if a leader knows that he or she is wrong, a public admission of error generates zero political upside and risks alienating one’s base.

But what about someone like Putin, who operates in a more authoritarian political system? Actually, the incentive not to admit error is even stronger in these countries. Authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders always have to worry about civil uprisings, and will go to great lengths to communicate that all is well and that they are super-competent leaders. That is part and parcel of how they stay in power and demoralize any opposition into believing that resistance is futile. Even memes that mock authoritarian leaders can be viewed as a political threat.

When you think about the authoritarian need to signal invulnerability, suddenly Putin’s myriad efforts to communicate his Feats of Strength make political sense. Whatever risks the American president faces in acknowledging a mistake, those risks increase by an order of magnitude in Putin’s dangerous, rumor-infested world.

Which is why we will be waiting a long, long time before current Russian president will ever admit that he messed up.