Imagine a US president faced with the following decision:

An Asian country is divided into two parts. The southern part has a democratically elected president and a population of about 20 million. The north is controlled by the Communist Party and has a strong military.

Now the northern part of the country invades the south, trying to unify the entire country under a communist-led government. How should the US government respond?

President Truman faced this dilemma in 1950. I am old enough to remember when President Johnson faced a similar decision in 1965.

When I read articles on foreign policy, I run into the difficulty of modeling the use of military force. We want to compare two counterfactuals, but in reality we hardly know what the alternatives actually look like. You may think you know that various past foreign policy decisions have worked well or poorly, but how can we be sure? Chaos theory suggests that even a small change in initial conditions can have huge consequences in future years. I defy anyone to create a counterfactual of post-1917 European history if the US had not entered WWI. One can certainly create many plausible counterfactuals, but how can we be confident that any one alternative history is correct?

Historical events often surprise foreign policy experts. Think of the Iranian revolution or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the image is actually trying to predict not only what is going to happen in reality, but what What would have happened if history had turned on a completely different track. It is basically impossible.

Economists also have difficulty predicting events such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. But at least we often know whether past policy decisions were correct, at least in retrospect Economists now understand that monetary policy was too tight in 1930 and too easy in 1968. In contrast, the field of foreign policy is almost entirely up for grabs. What if we had not fought the Spanish American? What if we hadn’t banned oil shipments to Japan in the late 1930s? What if we had not had the Gulf War in 1991? There are dozens of similar questions and few reliable answers, Even if the immediate impact of the decision is relatively obvious. There are too many “butterfly effects” to model, much more complex than the immediate effects of foreign policy adversities. In some cases (such as Ukraine) even the immediate outcome was not accurately predicted, as most experts predicted a quick Russian victory.

So what do we do?

Rest assured. The image above shows Herodotus and Thucydides

PPS. Tom Friedman There is an excellent article explaining:

But while I find the article highly persuasive, how can we be sure?

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