Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future: A Symposium

Schneider, Gerald, Nils Petter Gleditsch & Sabine Carey. 2010. International Studies Review 12: 1-7.

Exploring the past

Anticipating the future is both a social obligation and intellectual challenge that no scientific discipline can escape.1 The field of international studies is no exception to this, and we believe that few other disciplines reflect so deeply about their own capacity to provide accurate forecasts and to deliver useful early warning schemes. One school of thought declares prediction to be an impossible aspiration, sometimes because certain events are a priori considered to be unforeseeable (cf. Beyerchen 1992). The ex post facto realization that dramatic singular events like the fall of the Berlin Wall (e.g., Gaddis 1992) or the September 11 terrorist attacks (e.g., Herrmann and Choi 2007) shape global politics dramatically nurture this radical skepticism. Government, IGO, and NGO officials often take the opposite view that academics could anticipate the future if they would accept their ‘‘responsibility’’ of contributing something useful to society. Users of such forecasts in offices around the world are, for obvious reasons, convinced that anticipating the future is possible. In the words of one civil servant of the European Commission, ‘‘it can safely be argued’’ that the implemented early warning schemes have made a very significant contribution to the overall objective of further rooting the culture of conflict prevention in the day to day work…to making more systematic and more coordinated use of EU instruments to get to the root causes of conflict.” (Nin˜o-Pe´rez 2004:15) Some early warning initiatives die out after some time because they can not live up to the unrealistic expectations or because the internal agenda of the organization has changed. International Alert was married to the idea of early warning in the early years but no longer mentions early warning on its website. Swisspeace has closed down its FAST program, which relied on expert knowledge in conflict regions for the production of the forecasts. The contributions to this symposium take a middle position between the two opposing attitudes to the capacity of international studies ‘‘to augur well’’ (Singer and Wallace 1979). All articles in this symposium are inspired by the conviction that systematic research can make a difference and that the development of sensible forecasts provides scientists and policymakers alike with tools to anticipate crucial trends and, if needed, to counter them with appropriate policies. But the contributions are also aware of the limitations of our current efforts.