Richard Ned Lebow
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
Counterfactuals seek to alter some feature or event of the past and, by means of a chain of causal logic, show how the present might, or would, be different. Counterfactual inquiry—or control of counterfactual situations—is essential to any causal claim. More importantly, counterfactual thought experiments are invariably implication, and are essential to the construction of analytical frameworks. Policymakers routinely use them by to identify problems, work their way through problems, and select responses. Good foreign policy analysis must accordingly engage and employ counterfactuals.
There are two generic types of counterfactuals: minimal rewrite and miracle counterfactuals. They have relevance when formulating propositions and probing contingency and causation. There is also a set of protocols for using both kinds of counterfactuals toward these ends and illustrates the uses and protocols with historical examples. Policymakers invoke counterfactuals frequently, especially with regard to foreign policy, to choose policies and to defend them to key constituencies. They use counterfactuals in a haphazard and unscientific manner, and it is important to learn more about how they think about and employ counterfactuals to understand foreign policy.