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27 Aug 2015


Charles De Gaulle

Counterfactuals are “what if” statements, usually about the past. Counterfactual experiments vary aspects of the past and analyse how these changes might have affected the course of events.

In history such experiments always have uncertain outcomes because we can neither predict the future nor rerun the history tape to see what might actually happen.

Counterfactuals can combat the deeply rooted human propensity to see the future as more contingent than the past, reveal contradictions in our belief systems and highlight double standards in our moral judgements.

Counterfactuals are an essential ingredient of scholarship. They help determine the research questions we deem important and the answers we find to them. They are essential teaching tools and critical to evaluate propositions and claims of causation.

Assessing the EU

In the case of the European Union, assessment is probably the most relevant use of counterfactuals. What about free trade or the growing economic and political integration of Europe?

Serious and thoughtful people can be found on all sides of these controversies. Their arguments share one thing in common: they use counterfactual benchmarks – usually implicitly – to assess the merits of real world policies, outcomes or trends.

Assessment can be significantly influenced, or even determined, by the choice of counterfactual. With historical analogies the interesting, and eminently researchable, question becomes the extent to which counterfactuals guide evaluation or are chosen to justify positions that people have reached for quite different reasons.

Minimal rewrite and miracle counterfactuals

Minimal rewrite world counterfactuals are intended to impress readers as realistic; they cannot violate our understanding of what was technologically, culturally, temporally or otherwise possible.  They must meet a second test – having a real probability of leading to the outcome the researcher intends to bring about. The researcher must construct a logical path between the counterfactual change and the hypothesized outcome, and meet other tests that are described in the last section of the review.

Miracle world counterfactuals violate our understanding of what is plausible and are particularly useful in evaluating existing interpretations and proposing new ones.

With regard to the EU, we might consider a range of minimal rewrite and miracle counterfactuals to probe any question of interest to us.

We could remake the extension of the EU to the east to keep the EU a politically and more coherent institution and then consider the political and economic consequences.

It might require a number of minimal rewrite world counterfactuals to untrack expansion and to evaluate its implications.

It would probably require a miracle counterfactual to have an EU to which Greece was never admitted or a Europe without a finance crisis.  But surely, with minimal rewrites we could have a different Greek government, a different German minister of finance, and an earlier accommodation – or no accommodation – between Greece, the EU, and the IMF.

Counterfactuals regarding the UK and EU

When we turn to the UK and the EU we could consider two obvious counterfactuals.  First, that de Gaulle did not block its entrance into the Common Market, and that the EU developed with active British participation. It might have developed in ways to reduce the kind of opposition we meet today among certain Tories.

Second, we could posit other courses of development for the EU that would make it more or less attractive in Britain.

Some of these changes might involve minimal rewrite counterfacutals but others (eg changing de Gaulle’s view of the UK) would involve miracle counterfactuals.

Any of these counterfactuals, including miracle ones, might be used together to probe the sensitivity to change of the British people to the EU and of Europeans to the kind of changes Cameron seeks.

Counterfactual thought experiments around these and other questions can be used to evaluate the contingency of historical outcomes, the wisdom of past and recent political and economic decisions by the EU and member states, the resilience of the EU, and the future prospects of the European project.

This piece is by Richard Ned Lebow, Professor of international political theory in the War Studies department of King’s College London, Bye-Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

For protocols for conducting counterfactual experiments read Professor Lebow’s Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)


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