The Lesser of Evils: 3 Lessons From Tough Political Decisions

By: Sarah Fiske

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Am Scheideweg by Christian Rohlfs

Not everyone will wind up deciding whether to decrease sanctions on Iran or provide weapons to Ukraine; most won’t have a say in whether to amend No Child Left Behind or remove the death penalty in Georgia. Although, most people will decide whether or not to support these decisions, and most people will make smaller decisions on their own. I’ve found studying development and economics has taught me some things about how to make a good decision that are both informative in evaluating political decisions and policies as well as transferable to personal decisions I make every day.

Create a mechanism to consistently and objectively evaluate the success of a decision – and be willing to improve and update the mechanism of review as needed.

In 2002 the US began a new development initiative through USAID focused on Trade Capacity Building (TCB). TCB came with the tagline “from aid to trade.” This was critical and difficult as a wrong decision in development could hurt the poorest of the poor who should gain from it. If the decision was good, the participating countries’ economies would grow from increased participation in the world market and gains from trade would lead to better economic development.

Initially, the US measured success in biannual reports of trade numbers. In time it became clear this was helpful but was not enough to truly evaluate the TCB’s success compared to other programs. Even though it provided an overall picture of growth, it did not sufficiently break down the large program into smaller components in order to identify the areas of the program that needed more fine-tuning. The US collaborated with the World Bank and other countries to increase data coverage, surveyed small businesses on the ground, and established six specific questions to evaluate all 38 topics the project covered, thus preventing cherry picking of data to support certain results.

With the proper evaluation framework in place, the US was able to objectively examine the goals of the program and use the information gained to know what was successful and what needed tweaking. As most decisions made – from global politics to individual lifestyle changes – have multiple components and varying impacts, an established framework for evaluation is a critical component of achieving the best possible outcome.

 Remember the Context

Sanctions are often considered to be largely ineffective, with estimated success rates ranging from 5% to 30%. Politicians and the public also often consider sanctions unproductive. One scholar, Daniel Baldwin, argues that these analyses often neglect the context in making a judgment on the efficacy of sanctions.

Let’s look at the case of Cuba sanctions – the original decision to implement them, anyway. By 1960, there had been two world wars in the 20th century and now two hegemonic powers had the capability for mass destruction. Cold War, fear, and tensions were high. The US government and citizens alike feared the spread of communism and the damage that could be done if the Soviet ideology was promulgated close to home. Socialist leaning parties were cropping up in Latin America in response to US backed military dictators. There was a real threat that socialist regimes would threaten the carefully implemented US-backed governments in the region. The US government was faced with two challenges of international relations. One wrong move could bring serious escalation. On the other hand, politicians had to maintain the political support of their constituents. Although the precarious position was arguably the result of poor decisions and policy in the aftermath of the World Wars, there was a real threat of communism spreading and this was dangerous.

When the post-revolution Cuban government began seizing private land, nationalizing private businesses (including many US companies), and exiling opposition, the world noticed. How would the US back up its rhetoric against communism with actions? Would it engage in military action against Cuba? This could put an end to the Castro regime in Cuba and discourage other Latin American countries from following suit. Alternatively, it could increase anti-American sentiment and cause a rally of support around socialist leaders. It would certainly have heightened the expectations of conflict with the Soviet Union. Alternatively, a lack-luster response could give the impression the US was weak and was not going to back up its rhetoric with actions. Other countries might see it as a green light to proceed with their own reforms and the Soviet Union could increase its presence in the area. Ultimately, US domestic constituencies would never support a soft response to what was perceived as a serious and legitimate threat.

The United States opted for strong economic sanctions as a response to the situation rather than the more violent alternatives (well, except the Bay of Pigs catastrophe). The ultimate goal of the sanctions was to see the Castro regime ousted and replaced with a democratically installed government. A half century later, this has not happened and an impact evaluation based on our earlier example of measuring progress towards goals with well-defined mechanisms would lead anyone to conclude the sanctions failed. They were a poor decision, and a lesson learned when considering implementing sanctions in the future. But, as Baldwin points out, that judgment overlooks the context of the situation. While one would be hard pressed to say the decision was an overarching success, it was perhaps a better alternative to the other options considered, given the context. Context is always important in decision making, and is usually naturally considered when initiating a decision, but is sometimes forgotten in a post-decision evaluation.

This brings me to my last point, which piggy-backs on knowing the context:

Choose the right counterfactual – then choose it again:

The counter-factual is the “control group” of a laboratory experiment. It is the comparison that evaluates the effectiveness of a “treatment” and indicates what would have happened in the absence of treatment. Through examining the context of Cuba sanctions, we can conclude that the counterfactual to which we should compare outcomes was likely not the status-quo situation in Latin America, right before the sanctions were implemented, but is likely the trajectory would have been worse (a Latin America rife with communist regimes).

If we compare the results of the Cuba policy to the status quo before sanctions, we would say the treatment was ineffective. Cuba is still socialist, Castro is still in power, and relations are still strained. But, if we look at a counterfactual that considers the context and alternative regional trajectory, we might have a different result. The situation in Cuba post sanctions wasn’t great, but it was better than if Guatemala and Nicaragua had followed in suit, or had the Soviet Union established a greater presence in Latin America, or better than armed conflict in the region.

When making a decision and  evaluating it, one should consider that partial evaluations of successful past decisions can lead to poor future decisions where a treatment or policy is discarded instead of adapted when it could have some use. However, one must also remember that context changes – and thus the counterfactual. At some point the threat of violence and the spread of communism in the region dissipated – and so did the difference between a Cuba with sanctions and without. I would venture to make a largely uncontroversial statement that sanctions are no longer useful in Cuba – and perhaps have not been for quite some time. The context and counterfactual have changed, bringing us full circle.

Ultimately, decisions are difficult. They often put us in a place of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, and most options have drawbacks. This is as true for Barack Obama as it is for you and me. Measuring goals, considering context and finding the right counterfactual are useful tools, but what underlies all three is critical thinking. My charge to everyone is to always think about, evaluate, and challenge ideas and decisions; it is through this process that we improve.


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Sarah is a student at the Patterson School studying development. The right coach and hard work transformed her from a clumsy kid to a national champion and equipped her to continue to progress independently. She hopes to help individuals and communities to maximize their strengths and potential in the development field and continually leave her job to local community members well equipped to do the work on their own.

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