Prior to the autumn of 1989, few people predicted the fall of the Soviet empire and those who did usually did so for the wrong reasons – such as nuclear war with the West, war with China, or ethnic disruption. The general prescription for East-West relations was to find the right mix of confrontation, which could move things forward, and conciliation to minimize the risk of war. Only two and a half years after the spring 1989 decision of the Hungarian government to open its borders, the Soviet Union imploded. Not only had it let the Warsaw Pact countries go their own way, but the same privilege was granted to the 15 republics that made up the Union. Germany was reunited, a scenario held in low esteem by most international relations experts only a short time before.
Ten years earlier, after the end of the Mao era, almost no one had predicted how fast China would be overtaking the Soviet Union and become the main geo-strategic and economic challenger of the United States. The social sciences were equally silent on the prominent role that the internet and other technological innovations would play in what came to be known as “globalization”.
Following such sea-changes in international relations, scholars began to see the potential for dramatic changes behind every corner. Would the liberal twins, capitalism and democracy, be so successful that we had reached “the end of history”? Would Russia disintegrate, as had the Soviet Union? Would Ukraine and Russia go to war over the sharing of the Societ nuclear weapons or over the future of Crimea? Would the world see a “Clash of civilizations”? Would Ebola or Bird Flu produce plague-like human health disasters?
The 2009 ISA Annual Convention investigates different aspects of change and continuity in international relations under the heading of exploring the past and anticipating the future. Regional arms races, globalization, development, secularization, and the earth’s climate are all stories of change. Is mankind being overwhelmed by these changes or can we handle them in piecemeal fashion? Is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists justified in moving its doomsday clock forward from 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 to just 5 minutes to midnight in 2007, closer to doomsday than at any time since World War II except the 1950s and the early 1980s? Does globalization provide an incremental road to development, democracy, peace, and respect for human rights, or a slippery slope towards increased inequalities and civil strife?
For over ten years the US government has sponsored social science projects in trying to understand state failure with a view to preventing it from spreading. The UN and many non-governmental organizations would sorely like to predict conflict, genocide, and humanitarian catastrophes and move before they happen. In our lifetime, meteorologists have succeeded in forecasting short-term variations in weather (at least) on a better basis than yielded by the time-honored forecast that the weather tomorrow will be like the weather today. But predictions of conflict and genocide still remain largely at the level of trend projection. Can we do better?
The twin pitfalls of over-predicting and under-predicting change and continuity form the background for the 2009 conference. We will look back as well as forward. We encourage the submission of panels and papers that help us to better understand the past and anticipate the future in all aspects of the international system. The exact composition of panels will, as usual, depend on all of our members, as well as on input from the sections. Panels might explore likely changes in the international trade system and how these could affect the relationship between East and West, North and South. The dynamics between security, population flows, and changing levels of development might form the basis of another set of panels. We might have a session on why the profession did not predict the end of the Cold War and another on why theories of the imminent decline of the US have once again become fashionable. We could ask whether 9/11 (2001) is a turning-point of the same magnitude as 11/9 (the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989). Is global warming about to cause major damage to the health of the planet if we let things run their course, or is it something that we can easily deal with if we apply some reasonable countermeasures?
We anticipate that the ISA’s 50th conference in New York in 2009 will be full of constructive controversy. Meeting in the city that also provides the home for the United Nations we also hope to convey a message to the world policy community that international relations scholars have something to offer in its assessment of change – beyond the Scylla of stability and the Charybdis of apocalyptic change.