Richard Ned Lebow


On his book Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations

Cover Interview of April 07, 2010

In a nutshell

Counterfactuals are “what-ifs.”  They change a feature of the past in the expectation of changing the present.  The antecedent (the change introduced in the past) is connected to the consequent (the change in the present) by a chain of logic.

Counterfactual argument is no different in these respects from its “factual” counterpart.  Depending on the context, it may also be rich in supporting evidence.  We give credence to either kind of argument on the basis of its assumptions, chain of logic and consistency with evidence.

Counterfactuals nevertheless differ from “factuals” in that they create non-existent worlds.  We can never really know if such worlds could or would have come about by the means we use to create them.

We employ “minimal rewrite” counterfactuals routinely: small, credible changes of reality close in time to the outcome they wish to alter.  We also tend to mutate features of context that appear unusual.  If Susan was in an automobile accident while driving to work, we reason it might have been prevented if she had left at the usual hour, not ten minutes late, which caused her to drive faster than usual.

People frequently invent counterfactuals to buttress their self-esteem and self-confidence, reduce anxiety and evade responsibility for negative outcomes.  Scientists use counterfactuals to frame hypotheses and probe causation.  If we say that “x” causes “y,” other things being equal, “y” should not occur in the absence of “x.”  When cases are unique or show inadequate variation in outcomes, we must imagine alternative outcomes and conduct thought experiments to reason how they might have come out.

This is essential in history and international relations where the tape of events cannot be rewound and run millions of time to see what variation might occur.  We must introduce variation through comparative analysis and counterfactuals.

So counterfactuals are widely used by physical and social scientists.  Historians are on the whole are resistant to counterfactuals, but cannot write good history without them.  They smuggle counterfactuals into their narratives—often unreflexively and badly.

One of the goals of Forbidden Fruit is to develop a set of protocols for conducting counterfactual thought experiments in history and international relations.  I identify conditions that good counterfactual arguments must meet and the generic problems they encounter.  I devise methods for using counterfactuals to probe causation but also ways of undercutting these arguments, with the goal to understanding the robustness of the outcome we would change.  I offer as an historical example the phenomenal success of Western civilization in the modern era and ask what minimal rewrites of political, military, religious, social or scientific developments might have prevented it.  My goal in doing so is not to create an alternate world but to understanding the causes behind and the contingency of the world in which we live.  Subsequent case studies conduct counterfactual explorations of the origins of World War I and the end of the Cold War with the same end in mind.

In the second section of the book I don my psychological hat and conduct a series of experiments and surveys using policymakers, historians and international relations scholars as participants.  I demonstrate how resistant these professionals are to accepting the contingency of the political world but also how easy it is to manipulate their estimates of contingency.  The very people who should be thinking about causation in more complex ways are often extremely reluctant to do so, especially when contingency would call into question their preferred theories or views of the world.

The third section of the book turns to literature.  Psychologists speculate that counterfactuals are credible because of their vividness: they draw people into scenarios and make them appear realistic by providing small details of the kind we associate with our world.  I start with a story of my own, about an alternate world in which Mozart lives to sixty-five and, as a result, neither World War nor the Holocaust occur.  My heroine tries to imagine what the world would be like if Mozart had died at her partner’s age, thirty-five—the age at which Mozart actually died.  This is a deliberately far-fetched counterfactual, although I present a compelling chain of logic linking Mozart’s longevity to the peace of Europe by virtue of its consequences for Romanticism and the political goals of minorities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  I use the story as one of my experimental instruments to evaluate the role of vividness in counterfactuals.

I also analyze Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which uses counterfactuals very effectively to honor his parents—by creating a situation in which their response would reveal their commitment to their children and America.  The counterfactuals, which lead to a pro-Nazi Lindbergh administration, also show the contingent nature of American-Jewish identity.  Roth’s novel makes us reflect upon truths we take to be self-evident.

A final chapter explores the relationship between so-called fact and fiction and “factual” and counterfactual arguments.  These binaries are meaningful but so full of tensions and overlap that they are best understood as continuums.  Good literature, psychology, history and international relations should not brush these tensions under the rug but exploit them for creative purposes.