Posted by Jay Livingston
Here’s sentence from a New York Times op-ed by David Greenberg last week.
Modern Republican isolationism began with the 1919 battle over joining the League of Nations, when Senate Republicans, led by so-called Irreconcilables like William Borah of Idaho, killed the deal - even though without American guidance, European affairs were doomed to explode again.I’ve read sentences like this hundreds of times – I’ve probably written some myself. But last week, I had been reading Everything is Obvious* (*Once You Know the Answer) by Duncan Watts, and I got stuck on doomed. “European affairs were doomed to explode again.”
Were they? Was the explosion inevitable? And was the absence of US guidance a necessary cause of the explosion?
It certainly seems that way. We know that Europe exploded in war twenty years after that 1919 decision by the US to stay out of the League. But we know that only in retrospect. At the time, there may have been several other equally plausible outcomes.
It’s like saying that the 2011 Belmont Stakes was “doomed” to be won by Ruler on Ice. True, he did win. But before the start of the race, there were many other plausible outcomes, most of them more likely. If the same race were held tomorrow – the same twelve horses running on a similarly sloppy track – would Ruler on Ice inevitably win? I doubt it. (If he were again 24-1, I might be tempted to put a small bet on his nose, but I wouldn’t be at all confident of collecting.)
The trouble with history is that, like the 2011 Belmont, it’s run only once. And after it’s run, historians and op-ed writers do the same thing that horseplayers do after a race: they go back to the Racing Form, the past performances, and pick out the information nuggets, often pebble-sized, that account for the results. Sometimes they even add their own speculation as fact. A horseplayer might say that Ruler on Ice would also have won the Kentucky Derby if only he’d been entered, a statement for which we have zero observations. An op-ed writer might say that the US presence in the League of Nations would have prevented World War II, a speculation based on a similar number of observations.
Watts suggests a different way of looking at history. Here, for example, is his take on the surge in Iraq. In the fall of 2007, the US upped its Iraq force by 30,000 troops. By the next summer, violence had substantially decreased. Conclusion: the surge worked. It reduced the violence.
Or did it?
Many other things happened between the fall of 2007 and the summer of 2008 as well. Sunni resistance fighters, seeing an even greater menace from hard-core terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda than from American soldiers, began to cooperate with their erstwhile occupiers. The Shiite militia – most importantly Moktada Sadr’s Mahdi Army – also began to experience a backlash from their grassroots, possibly leading them to moderate their behavior. And the Iraqi Army and police forces, finally displaying sufficient competence to take on the the militias, began to assert themselves, as did the Iraqi government. Any one of these factors might have been at least as responsible for the drop in violence as the surge. Or perhaps it was some combination. Or perhaps it was something else entirely.We can’t know because history is run only once.
Ideally, we should be able to go back, examine our variables, look at the possible scenarios, and assign each outcome a probability. Maybe the outcome that did happen would have a lower probability than others, and we would wind up saying that what happened was a fluke or at least improbable. But that’s not what we do.
Rather than producing doubt, the absence of “counterfactual” versions of history tends to have the opposite effect – namely that we tend to perceive what actually happened as having been inevitable.As I was reading this part of Watts’s book, I kept thinking of Hans J. Morgenthau, the great political scientist. This was many years ago, perhaps during Vietnam, and after Morgenthau’s analysis, typically thoughtful and insightful, someone in the audience asked him what we could expect as the outcome. In his elegant, German-accented English. Morgenthau said,
Well, the answer to that is that I am a professor, not a prophet. I cannot tell you what will happen. I can only tell you why what did happen was absolutely bound to happen.
Will Ruler on Ice beat those same horses again? Will another surge reduce violence? Maybe, but don’t bet on it.