What-If, What-Could, What Might-Have-Been

Cass Sunstein has a review in The New Republic of Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Evans is, to put it mildly, not a great fan of the counterfactual exercise in history, particularly as engaged in by historians.

With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally uselesspossibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

There is a long and treasured strand of anti-counterfactual history in the academy, the most eminently quotable example of such being E. H. Carr’s famous dismissal of alternate history as a mere “parlor game” in What Is History? Of course, Carr himself was a determinist who was solidly convinced that history could not have unfolded any other way (the “Morpheus school” of events, perhaps). Evans, on the whole, seems to fall into that camp as well, though as Sunstein points out, he “seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject.”

Part of Evans’s unease with counterfactual history is that in a way, it is itself overly deterministic. That is to say, a single changed historical variable might produce a wildly different result, and that history is contingent on the “great man” or, to quote a number of books, on that one fateful day, be it June 28, December 7, or September 11.

In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

But to consider history in any form is essentially to allow for the fact that events occurred instead of another subset of events. After all, if there was only one set of possibly outcomes, why would we still care or study such events today? Famed World War II historian Richard Overy wrote a book that outlined the conditions that led to Allied victory in the war. But even while attempting to show the precariousness on which the Allied cause rested, he racks up an impressive string of advantages: some significant economic superiority (more specifically, the “sheer speed and scale of American rearmament”), unity within and among the Allies, a demonstrable sense of moral righteousness, and even organizational differences (e.g., an Axis inability to make full use of their own resources and production capacity). The gulf between Axis and Allies, particularly by the end of the war, was massive. But to look solely at that ignores the vast struggle that led to that balance of power, and belies the fact that this large number of factors in the Allies’ favor still required several years just to regain the strategic initative, much less win the war.

History, of course, has a lively following today, and so too does counterfactual history. My undergraduate professor, Fred Smoler, has periodically taught a class since my senior year called “The Music of What Happens” (PDF, p. 72), which is an exploration in both historical and literary terms of the alternate histories that have been and are being written today. This is also a roundabout way of saying that not all counterfactual works lie squarely in the realm of “history” as we know it and statistical analysis. Often, the outlandish settings of alternate history fiction are merely a backdrop for some other story (but which serve as way to explore that setting). Robert Harris’s Fatherland and works of literature like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union feature a noir-esque, hard-boiled detective narrative as a familiar means of operating in an otherwise-unfamiliar world. (Even other world-building fiction like China Miéville’s The City & the City use a detective story as the foreground plot.)

I will admit, though, that in an article of this length I was surprised not to find any reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which still stands as one of the great reasons for alternate history to exist. “Whig history” is the protestant/progressive tendency to view the present as a logical extension of the past, inexorably moving forwards towards a bright future, which represents merely another point on the same continuum.To quote Butterfield:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present … Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

The real problem with the whigs and the determinists is that they have denied the past any chance of their own agency. Instead, they characterize history as a series of preconceived steps that of course have brought us to this very moment. But the strength and appeal of counterfactual history is that it can restore a sense of contingency to historical actors, and to better understand the world as it was (and is): it was a series of choices to make, and the present is the result of those actions not chosen.

Different scenarios will have different utility to different thinkers: whether one cares about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or an Al Gore victory in 2000 or an industrial China in the sixteenth-century depends greatly on one’s interests and research and career and available free time. But as it sounds like Richard Evans eventually comes around to thinking, albeit unwittingly, even just by disagreeing with a counterfactual, you lend the scenario some degree of credence: things might have happened very differently, indeed. And while this likely is not the best of all possible worlds, one can easily imagine a world much worse.


Howard Davies, Libya, and the LSE

The big news yesterday – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many friends repost the exact same link before – was that the director of the London School of Economics, Howard Davies, had resigned his position over the the Libyan donation scandal that’s brewing.

I’ve said this all before, that there was some bad mojo brewing on Houghton Street, but no one seemed to care. Despite the thuggery and brutality clearly emanating from both Gaddafi son and pere, no one seemed to care until the regime was literally killing people in the streets. At the same time, obviously Davies is not the sole person to blame – much of the institution’s staff and even student body should be held with some degree of contempt. And the LSE is hardly the only institution guilty of this sort of disreputable association. Still, there was in incredible lapse of judgment shown on Davies’ part.

I advised the [LSE] council that it was reasonable to accept the money and that has turned out to be a mistake. There were risks involved in taking funding from sources associated with Libya and they should have been weighed more heavily in the balance.

I’m not sure in what reality accepting the donations would have been a good thing – it either would have been secretive blood money or eventually public-knowledge blood money – and while Davies may have held the best of intentions, it was still an utterly wrong decision. He did do the honorable thing by resigning, and that at least restores a bit of luster to his reputation. But coupled with accusations of plagiarism by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on his PhD dissertation, it seems like a pretty nefarious spot the school has found itself in.

I would also like to take this occasion to point out that Simon Jenkins is a bit of a dick, accusing all LSE students of not caring about the whole affair because it didn’t involve the Tories and General Pinochet:

When the school’s distinguished Arabist, the late Fred Halliday, protested about these links before his death last year, he appears to have been alone. Money did not just talk, it strutted the LSE campus and swept aside all dignity and common sense. Needless to say, the place is now awash in self-flagellation. But as yet there has been no inquiry into this bizarre episode in the school’s history. I wonder what LSE staff and students would be saying if the saga had concerned Oxford University, a Tory government and General Pinochet.

Halliday was one of the most honorable men at the school; it was very sad indeed to see him go. And no one of any standing has yet replaced him. I fear no one will. And in all likelihood, this will not deter future acceptance of questionable donations. The big ‘gamble’ that Howard Davies took was not in accepting the money, but in whether anyone would find out. And if that happened, whether anyone would even care. As it turns out, nothing short of mass murder will cause much of an outcry at all. Is that really the bar we want to set?

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

A classic example of realist IR theory at work.

In the late summer of 2009, Dan Drezner came out with a delightful piece in Foreign Policy called “How International Relations Theory Would Cope with a Zombie Uprising.” It’s really quite clever, exploring the effects of a zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of  a structural realist, a liberal institutionalist, a social constructivist, and so forth.

Apparently, Drezner was so pleased with the idea that he ran with it and turned it into a book: Theories of International Politics and Zombies. And for the launch of the book, he’s doing some sort of speaking tour. I had the pleasure of seeing him talk last night, courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. There’s no way I could have passed it up – it combines two of my great pleasures in life. International relations theory and the walking dead.

Having an open bar was an excellent call for an event like this. There’s only so much gravitas you can hold while discussing the finer points of the constructivist critique; namely, that zombies “are what we make of them.” No single paradigm can accurately model zombie behavior, of course. Realism assumes that somewhere down the line zombie states will emerge. Liberalism sees the possibility of cooperation with the zombies. Constructivism thinks that the zombies can be socialized. None of these will hold true; the closest real-world comparison for the tactics and effects of massed zombies would include assymmetrical warfare, global transnational terrorism, and the spread of communicable disease.

Drezner was great, peppering his talk with clips from Night of the Living Dead, both the original Dawn of the Dead and the remake, Shaun of the Dead, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Also getting heavy mention was Max Brooks’ World War Z, which I was especially glad to hear as it meant I could ask a question about the Battle of Yonkers being a failure of RMA without having to explain the former. (Answer: not a failure of RMA, but a reflection of the bureaucratic morass at the Pentagon – the intransigence of Standard Operating Procedure.) Here are Drezner’s general conclusions:

  • Thucydides is still relevant in a post-zombie world
  • The zombie canon is too pessimistic (from Patient Zero to the apocalypse always takes about ten minutes)
  • International relations paradigms probably suffer from intellectual rigidity
  • Analytic eclecticism has its advantages to explaining a zombie uprising

And now, some highlights from the Q&A. Drezner’s zombie contingency plan:

If you don’t hear from me for a week, pack up and move to New Zealand.

The zombies’ effect on existing conflicts:

If zombies broke out in Belgium, you know the Flemish would throw the Walloons under the bus.

We would see a large exodus/mass migration from urban centers to far more rural areas:

Richard Florida would be devastated. And eaten.

A protracted counter-zombie campaign would most likely lead to a ‘counter-zombie policy fatigue’. We might, perhaps, come to take the same view of such a strategy as we eventually did of Prohibition. Drezner also suggested his next book, in keeping with Keohane’s After Hegemony, might simply be titled After Aliens.

Anyways, it was a great event, and many thanks to the Chicago Council for putting it on. Especially as a Young Professionals event. I picked up a copy of his book there (and had him sign it. “To Graham: hope you survive!”); expect a review soon.


I’ve been remiss in not linking to my most recent Fortnight article (this one dating back to December 15). One of my big influences both politically and intellectually in the last few years has been Christopher Hitchens. Modeled after his Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Letters to Hitch” is my attempt to express the spirit he represents – one that I fear may be emblematic of a dying breed. An excerpt:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

You must be reading far too much correspondence these days from people from whom you have never heard or of whom you have never thought. I imagine a terminal diagnosis is somewhat like being a lottery winner in that respect–a reverse lottery. Pardon the dark humor. I hope I’m not breaching the new etiquette of cancer you’re composing on a daily basis; it is lines like: “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist” that give me confidence in your undiminished wit.

To that end, I won’t even bother asking how you are (your answer, I assume, would continue to be “I seem to have cancer today”).

Forgive my fawning; I have spared nuance to save time. Allow me this moment to express my admiration for the evolution of your writing and political thought. This is not just because your path tracks with my own, but because your work represents a devoted iconoclasm I fear my generation will not reproduce.

You can read the rest here.

The Ring of Truthiness

From a Freakonomics post at the New York Times:

If I were a clever, real economist, I might neatly package the conclusion along the lines of the demand for opiates being relatively inelastic, but the brand (?) sensitivity is low, and once the incidental costs of heroin (inconvenience, lower quality, abscesses, disease, visibility) became lower than the absolute cost of oxycontin, the market suddenly tilted. (That’s probably mostly gibberish, but it sounds economish.)

Economish! Great coinage there. ‘Supply-side economish.’ ‘The Austrian school of economish’.

Plus, it’s a great word to use, representing the evaporation of any credibility the whole discipline may have once had. Anyone see where the Dow is these days? Exactly, who cares!

High Technology in the Hermit Kingdom

The Main and Academic Buildings at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

38North (the US-Korea Institute at SAIS blog) has been producing some fantastic reporting lately, and today came out with an article on the new Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which opened in October.

Its very existence is a contradiction in terms. It is a pool of 160 of the best and the brightest computer and engineering students in North Korea, proud graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University. Perhaps most out-of-character for the tightly sealed country, these students will eventually be allowed free access to the internet. At first, only email capabilities will be granted, but eventually their access will open up and students able to venture beyond the Guang Myung internal North Korean intranet.

PUST itself is backed and funded by evangelical Christians, but steps are taken to ensure that no proselytizing takes place on campus. The university is also in negotiations and talks with the Department of Commerce and South Korean agencies, clearing everything from the names of schools to the curriculum itself. PUST’s cooperation is deemed necessary to securing new technology and avoiding dual-use restrictions on tech imports.

School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”

The school hopes to have 2,600 students by 2012, visiting faculty, and all the other accoutrements of a successful modern research university. But they will also have some unique challenges to North Korea:

Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.

Signs of openness? An attempt to forcibly drag North Korea into the 21st century? A smokescreen for weapons-grade technology imports? Or just an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of a few lucky North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, on the whole, whether this is a good or bad development. The students attending PUST will have more access to knowledge and the broader world than ever before, and depending on whether their contact with ‘normal’ North Koreans is limited, could possibly spread the gospel of the free world. Then again, developments and breakthroughs made at PUST could very well have military implications, despite all assurances to the contrary (indeed, how could Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong Un resist?).

If this really “might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy,” that should be good for North Korea in the long run. But then again, we’re still feeling the agony of our shift from one to the other, and for a country like the United States that transition was not an easy one to make. I suspect it may be even more painful for the DPRK.

“The neutral keep out of the light; good boys are at present safe”

You’ll have to excuse the delay – it was a week before we had a bed or an internet in the apartment, and since then Comcast has really, really dropped the ball (cutting my neighbors’ physical lines didn’t help any). Also, still no job, which is less than ideal.

But still! The writing must go on. Writing and reprinting.

And so I have a very special treat for you today: the entirety of Brigadier Charles Dunbar’s “The Military Problems of Counter Insurgency.” Dunbar commanded 66 Commando Royal Marine during the Aden Emergency, and had quite an eye for low-intensity operations. Written in late 1967 or 1968, the document is a far-reaching and detailed analysis of the problems faced by the British in Aden, while also making allusions to contemporary insurgencies in Cyprus and Kenya, intrigue in Saudi Arabia, Anna Karenina, and the idiocy of “that well known Scandinavian, Mr. Rudegeld.”

I took the liberty of retyping it – my aging photocopy was worn, scuffed, and overly stamped. I’ve attempted to reproduce the formatting as exactly as possible, and this includes leaving in misspellings and other errors. You can see, for example, that when he’s talking on page 3 about the Eastern Bloc, interrogation, and Vietnam, that his mind is racing too quickly to accurately transfer all his thoughts onto paper. But you’ll know what he means. And it’s definitely worth knowing.

This document is available at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London. Box Dunbar 2/5. Enjoy!

Moving Day

My dissertation is done and complete. “Aden in the Balance: Airpower and Counterinsurgency in Aden, 1956-1967” has been handed in, and until I hear or decide otherwise, I am officially finished with school. I’ve got excerpts from that and a lot more goodies from the archive to share with you, but it will have to wait a couple days before I have internet up and running again.

It’s fitting that on the same day my dissertation was due, I am moving to Chicago. I bid a fond farewell to the East Coast, where my heart will always live. And if I ever come back saying “pop” instead of “soda,” please punch me in the face.

I know exactly how these rodents feel; packing has been just like this.

Notes From the Archive IV

When you have several [intelligence] battalions working this system, it is of course most expensive in terms of man hours. But except against the most highly skilled gang, success is only a question of time. What we are after is not the pistol hidden under the car seat, or explosives in the bicycle pump. It is the man with it who can ‘help the police in their enquiries’. Weapons talk, but nothing like its owner.

– Major-General Sir John Willoughby, “Problems of Counter-Insurgency in the Middle East,” The RUSI Journal 113:650 (1968), 108.