The critique of constructive US economic engagement (aka “globalization”) is that it enabled a stronger, more threatening China. But the very same approach also facilitated robust allies around the world, including Japan, S Korea, and Singapore.

The critique of the Vietnam War was that active US intervention was doomed to fail and cost blood and treasure. Yet similar commitments largely staved off Soviet influence in Greece, S Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, across Latin America, and the Middle East.

The War of Terror is largely seen as a failure today because of costly and futile commitments to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan long-term. Yet the US has not been the target of a comparable terrorist attack since 9/11, which was by no means a given.

We should always been keen to recognize mistakes and learn from failure. But failing to recognize success, and taking it for granted, can distort our perception just as badly, and lead to learning the wrong lessons.

Sometimes the distinction lies is something we did differently. But sometimes – and this can be difficult to accept – it comes from strategies that are otherwise sound being far from foolproof in an uncertain world.

One thing that frequently happens is that by solving one problem, we create others. True enough, but it is easy to forget what the origin problem was, and why the solution still made sense even though it led to new ones.

Again, this is not an argument against critical introspection, or against criticism at all. It’s just important perspective, because without it, criticism can sometimes reach conclusions that are too easy.

One of the hardest things to convey, and to accept, in policymaking is that there are not purely right or purely wrong solutions to most problems, only tradeoffs, and at times tradeoffs conditioned by great uncertainty, i.e. educated bets.

This certainly doesn’t go over well in an environment that often demands that people speak with absolute certitude to be regarded as convincing and worth listening to.

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