The first thing to know about the American Political Science Association's annual conference is that it is really, really big.
This year it is in Boston, at the Hynes Convention Center, plus several adjoining hotels. The four-day program guide is 441 pages long, roughly half of which is devoted to listing panels (roughly five to a page - which makes more than 1,000 panels). I'm attending, and I'll be posting some dispatches from here over the next few days.
The first challenge is how to spend your time. Cruise the books section for promotional giveaways? Sit in the lounge and schmooze? Or go for the panels? But then how to choose the talk? "The Diffusion of Policy Diffusion" or "Rural Inequality and Electoral Authoritarianism"? "Strategic Preference Conflict and Endogenous Information in Bureaucracies" or "Who Benefits from Hegemony? A Formal Approach"? "Implications of Issue Salience for Territorial, Maritime, and River Claims" or "Religious Revival and the Local State in Russia and China." And that was all at 8 a.m.!
Better to start with the 10:15 a.m. panels. I figured, go for the big names, so I popped in on "Is the United States in Decline Again?" a panel discussion featuring the relatively famous Yale historian Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of Great Powers).
Kennedy, with his delightful sly British accent, posed some good questions: Why are American politicians so obsessed with being number one and so uncomfortable with admitting any decline? Why do we think there has to be a number one in world politics anyway? Kennedy still thinks that the challenge for the United States is "sensibly managing relative decline." After all, he contends, how long can 5 percent of the world account for more than 20 percent of its GDP, and more than 50 percent of its defense spending?
Fellow panelist William C. Wohlforth, professor of government at Dartmouth (and a former Kennedy student) was more optimistic on America's sustained global preeminence, noting that "power relations changing pretty slowly," and we shouldn't confuse current trends with existing relationships (that's the kind of thinking that led to fears of Japan overtaking us in the 1980s). Besides, what maters are latent material resources, and the U.S. has plenty of those.
Other good questions came up: What do demographic projections tell us about future power (China and Russia are aging rapidly, remember)? And how important is global perception of power relations? Does perception follow reality, or does perception create reality?
Good questions. But, one problem with these panels: you never really get answers. Well, maybe next year.