Visions of the Future

by William Aceves

As we get closer to the ASIL Annual Meeting, I would like to provoke some discussion about the future of international law, which is the theme of the conference.

As noted in my Tuesday post, significant resources have been devoted to thinking about the future. Some of these efforts include the use of trends analysis and scenario building. Scenarios are stories about the future, or better stated, about possible futures. They are not predictions or forecasts. Rather, these stories are designed to encourage reflection about the future in a systematic manner.

Scenarios are valuable for several reasons. They help identify key trends and can suggest how these trends may shape the future. By offering different visions of the future, they offer a laboratory for testing how different policies – political, economic, social, and legal – might respond to these different futures. At a more fundamental level, scenarios are designed to promote critical thinking about the future in a manner that influences and informs the present.

Let me offer a brief example from the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project, which developed four scenarios of possible futures in 2020.

• Davos World provides an illustration of how robust economic growth, led by China and India, over the next 15 years could reshape the globalization process—giving it a more non-Western face and transforming the political playing field as well.
• Pax Americana takes a look at how US predominance may survive the radical changes to the global political landscape and serve to fashion a new and inclusive global order.
• A New Caliphate provides an example of how a global movement fueled by radical religious identity politics could constitute a challenge to Western norms and values as the foundation of the global system.
• Cycle of Fear provides an example of how concerns about proliferation might increase to the point that large-scale intrusive security measures are taken to prevent outbreaks of deadly attacks, possibly introducing an Orwellian world.

According to the National Intelligence Council, “these scenarios illustrate just a few of the possible futures that may develop over the next 15 years, but the wide range of possibilities we can imagine suggests that this period will be characterized by increased flux, particularly in contrast to the relative stasis of the Cold War era. The scenarios are not mutually exclusive: we may see two or three of these scenarios unfold in some combination or a wide range of other scenarios.”

At the Friday evening Annual Dinner, Philip Bobbitt will provide his own scenarios for the next 30 years. These possible futures – provocatively labeled “American Buffalo,” “The Real Thing,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” and “Otherwise Engaged,” – address WMD proliferation, multipolarity, and increasing civilian vulnerability to catastrophe. Not surprisingly, each of these issues will be addressed at this year’s Annual Meeting.

Is any of this useful? Yes! Scenario building is valuable because it encourages policy analysts (and scholars) to identify long-term trends and to consider the implications of these trends on the international system. Such studies may reveal that certain areas of international law are undeveloped or underdeveloped.

The 101st Annual Meeting is designed to “generate and inform ideas about the future of international law and the role of international lawyers.” As ASIL President Jose Alvarez noted, the Annual Meeting “is a perfect place to examine The Future of International Law.” We hope to see you there.

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