Thinking About the Future: It’s About Time

by William Aceves

Let me begin by thanking Opinio Juris for inviting the Co-Chairs for this year’s ASIL Annual Meeting to guest blog this week. As they say: long time reader, first time blogger.

This year’s Annual Meeting theme is The Future of International Law. While it is easy to disregard theme statements when organizing a conference, this year’s Program Committee took its mandate seriously. Accordingly, we put together a conference with a noticeable emphasis on thinking about the future.

One of the biggest challenges in getting people to think about the future is to convince them that this does not involve astrology, numerology, fortune-telling, or discussions about the merits of The Matrix, Star Trek, or Star Wars (not that there’s anything wrong with this). In fact, there is an extraordinary amount of scholarship that offers interesting and innovative reflections about the future. Scholars from diverse disciplines – from political science and economics to history and law – have thought about the future and have done so in a rigorous and systematic fashion. A few examples come to mind.

In his monumental study, The Anarchical Society, Hedley Bull explored the question of “order” in world politics. As part of his study, Professor Bull inquired into alternative paths to world order. He identified several variations on the existing state system. While Bull acknowledged the existence of multiple paths to world order, he also recognized the need to proceed with caution in such analysis. “The fact is that while there is a great desire to know what the future of world politics will bring, and also to know how we should behave in it, we have to grope about in the dark with respect to the one as much as with respect to the other. It is better to recognize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light.”

While historians study the past, some use their understanding of history to contemplate the future. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy examined the relationship between economic power and military power and the influence of this relationship on the rise and fall of empires. While offering some predictions into the future, Kennedy acknowledged the conjectural nature of his study. History is based on events that have already occurred whereas predictive studies are based on events that have yet to occur (or may never occur). Archival research is thus replaced by “economic forecasts and political projections.” As a result, “nothing one can say about the future has that certainty. Unforeseen happenings, sheer accidents, the halting of a trend, can ruin the most plausible of forecasts; if they do not, then the forecaster is merely lucky.”

Even legal scholars have thought about the future in a systematic manner. In The Shield of Achilles, constitutional law scholar Philip Bobbitt examined the history and future of the state system. Because of the fundamental changes taking place in the constitutional order of states, Bobbitt did not offer predictions of the future. He found there is too much uncertainty to engage in even simple forecasting. Rather, Bobbitt offered a set of scenarios, which provide different narratives of what the future might look like. (I’m delighted that Professor Bobbitt will be speaking at the Annual Meeting on Friday evening. Appropriately, the Opinio Juris reception on International Law blogging precedes his talk.)

Thinking about the future is not exclusively an academic exercise. Significant resources have been devoted to this work by groups in the public and private sectors, and their research has produced fascinating studies, from the famous Shell scenarios to the National Intelligence Estimates.

This year’s Annual Meeting offers many panels on the future of international law. We hope the meeting will encourage scholars to undertake similar efforts.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We live in an era of extraordinary challenges, of threats both natural and man-made. And so, we simply cannot afford to disregard the future. As I noted in my 2005 article, Predicting Chaos?, which was published in the Virginia Journal of International Law, those who do not learn from the future are condemned to live it.

We look forward to seeing you at this year’s Annual Meeting, which takes place at The Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C. from March 28 – March 31, 2007. To register, click here.

One Response

  1. Incidental to your post, but I’m glad to see the link to SEP’s entry on Santayana, for I was thrown off a bit by the identification of him as a ‘Spanish philosopher’ which, I suppose, is technically or in one sense true, but I’ve always thought of him as a quintessentially American philosopher, hence the description of him as ‘a principal figure in Classical American Philosophy.’ Perhaps in the end we’re best served by the author’s conclusion that Santayana ‘is the first and foremost Hispanic-American philosopher,’ an Aristotelian mean that also signals Santayana’s creative pragmatism. (And I like the acknowledgement of the fact that he left us with ‘a striking and sensitive account of the spiritual life without being a religious believer.’)

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