Strategy Is Only Partly an Illusion: 
“Relative Foresight” as an Objective Standard for Evaluating Foreign Policy Competence

Jeffrey A. Friedman
Richard Zeckhauser

May 2024


Foreign policy-makers must grapple with complexity, uncertainty, and subjectivity. As Betts (2000) puts it, these challenges raise the possibility that “strategy is an illusion”: that there is no reliable method for assessing skill at managing international politics. By contrast, we show that researchers can objectively evaluate a critical component of foreign policy competence using a standard we call “relative foresight,” defined as decision-makers’ ability to anticipate consequences of their choices as compared to alternative views based on similar information. Relative foresight can be measured without relying on value judgments or subjective probabilities. By contrast, other common frameworks for gauging foreign policy competence, such as comparing leaders’ behavior to the rational actor model or assessing procedural rationality, almost always leave room for reasonable disagreement. We demonstrate that relative foresight provides a useful tool for evaluating major foreign policy choices through case studies of Barack Obama’s decisions regarding the Afghan Surge and the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Our framework has broad implications for research on normative, prescriptive, and descriptive dimensions of foreign policy analysis.

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