Rein Taagepera, recipient of Skytte Prize 2008, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Tartu, and the University of California, Irvine, USA.
The Crimean War began 160 years ago, 80 years after Russia seized Crimea from Turkey. The war theater covered all of northern and eastern Black Sea coast, and even reached the Gulf of Finland, but its focus was Franco-British-Sardinian siege and capture of Sevastopol. Why on earth would West European allies wish to get stuck on the Black Sea? They tried to keep Russia from cutting off too large a slice of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire. This empire kept on decaying, anyway. Counter-attacks by the empire and its opportunistic allies barely slowed down the process. Turkey did not recover Crimea.
Now another decaying empire tries to strike back, and it started with Crimea. Journalists and political scientists tend to have short time horizons. Anything without precedent since 1990, or 1945 at most, may be called “unprecedented”. In this view, an international system essentially stable since times immemorial has lately become disrupted. Future has become uncertain, the past offering no guidance. This means, of course, the past since the creation of the political world, in 1990 – or in 1945, if one was born that long ago.
“New Realities in the Making” sounds of course catchier than déjà vu, but systematic political science should embed short-term new realities in a broader framework, making use a longer historical perspective. This would improve our predictive power. Some political scientists pride themselves of never making predictions, but they must mean specific predictions. Separating the possible from the unlikely also is prediction. So is separating actions that look successful, short-term, from those that actually are, in the long term.
Why should society be interested in funding an endeavor completely devoid of prediction? Historians beat political scientists in describing what endures. Journalists beat them in instant postdiction. If political scientists publish only median-term analyses – too late for daily decision-making but outdated within ten years – what would their function be?
This note focuses on the long term, offering a sketch of patterns of stabilization and destabilization of international system. It largely shuffles mentally through a high school history book, but my quantitative studies on empire growth and decay over the last 5000 years may add insights. The outcome is a mapping of the present situation in a broader historical context. Mapping alone does not get us out of the woods. But with faulty mapping we may move deeper into the woods. Continue reading