Richard Ned Lebow


On his book Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations

Cover Interview of April 07, 2010

The wide angle

History and social science largely rest on Humean causation:  the belief in causes that can be established by something approaching a constant conjunction between two events, one envisaged as a cause and the other as its outcome.

The social world is open-ended and non-linear, both of which render Humean causation of limited value.  By open-ended I mean a world in which events in one domain, say the political or social, can influence events in another, like economics, and perhaps even the understandings people have about how such a domain works.  Non-linear refers to the interaction of multiple causes which have effects that are more than additive, and may be responsible for bringing about major transformations.

The social revolution of the 1960s, to offer an example, was brought about by the interaction effects of the rise of a youth culture (due to the creation of a market niche and the development of rock and roll), the invention of the birth control pill, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.  All these events had independent chains of causation in diverse domains but interacted in non-linear ways to transform the social-political context of 1960s America.

Counterfactuals provide a critical tool for exploring complex causation of all kinds and I use my two historical case studies of World War I and the end of the Cold War to demonstrate how both were the result of highly contingent non-linear confluences.  Despite the common belief that both developments were the result of deep causes and all but inevitable, counterfactual historical research makes it apparent that these events, not merely their timing, were highly contingent.  Such contingency has profound implications for the kinds of theories we think capable of making sense of our world.

I first became involved with counterfactuals because American security policy during the Cold War rested on a counterfactual: if only Britain and France had stood firm early on against Hitler, World War II and all of its horrors could have been prevented.

As Stalin and Khrushchev were assumed to be the linear descendants of Hitler, deterrence was considered the appropriate response.  No effort was made to test this counterfactual against rich and available historical evidence.  Deterrence, moreover, was confirmed tautologically.  Its failures were never attributed to the strategy and the responses it provoked but rather to the putative failure to apply it forcefully enough.  Such “learning” in Washington and Moscow was responsible for the chain of crises culminating in the 1961 Cuban missile crisis, the closest the superpowers came to destroying themselves through a nuclear war.

Counterfactuals can have enormous rhetorical appeal and be made partially self-fulfilling.  This is all the more reason we must study them and do so in the most scientific manner possible.