Author Archive for
William Aceves

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.

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.