A Realist in an Ideological Age: An Interview with Stephen Walt

For years, Stephen Walt has been amongst the leading scholars in the field of International Relations. As a commentator, Professor Walt has been a constant voice of reason on matters of foreign policy, and, as an academic, he has substantially furthered our understanding of international politics through his numerous influential contributions to the field of international relations. In this interview, we ask Professor Walt about the current geopolitical environment, the state of IR academia, the progress of IR theory, and his advice for young scholars of IR. 


How did you arrive at where you currently are in international relations? What are the most noticeable differences in the field of international relations today from when you were a young scholar?

Stephen Walt: The main difference is the emphasis placed today on research methods, and especially the use of statistical analysis. This was an important component when I entered the field, but sophisticated methods were means to an end rather than an end in itself. There was also more attention to history and theory and less to simply analyzing data, and a greater concern for real-world relevance. I think the last element is beginning to change, and more and more young scholars are interested in doing work that addresses important real-world topics rather than arcane academic topics.

What are the fundamentals prerequisites for a student to excel, may it be as an academic or a practitioner, in international relations? 

Stephen WaltOne of the nice features of academia is that there are many different ways to be successful, rather than a single set of prerequisites. That said, it is very important for students to be intensely curious, and driven by a desire to figure out some challenging problem. They have to have the confidence to think boldly and to challenge orthodoxy, but they also need to humble about their work and be able to be self-critical. Needless to say, that’s a difficult combination to pull of. Being organized and having a strong work ethic is essential, and the ability to write clearly is extremely valuable as well.

According to you, what are the most promising areas of international relations theory today? Are there any particular weaknesses or blind spots in International Relations theory?

Stephen Walt: I don’t think we understand very much about the interaction between great power politics and what is happening at the sub-national level (i.e., civil wars, terrorism, etc.) There is some useful work being done in both realms, but the connections between them are rarely examined. There has also been very little theoretical work done on the implications of the dramatic expansion of global communications (i.e., the Internet, cyber-security, etc.): we all know it is important, but nobody knows exactly how or what the long-term implications are.

When I was taking IR-101, my Professor repeatedly used the analogy of a lens to describe the various theoretical paradigms in international relations. How would you describe the relationship between the different schools of thought within the context of international relations theory?

Stephen Walt: A theory is just a tool: it is a mental construct that identifies the key components in a particular realm and shows how they fit together. Theories “make sense” out of the infinite array of empirical data that we all experience every day. Accordingly different theories—whether they are “grand theories” like realism or various “middle range” theories—make the world look different to us and lead us to expect different things. I’ve never believed we ought to view theories as some sort of religion: none of them are perfect, and the main question is simply whether they are useful or not.

A few years ago, you wrote on your blog in Foreign Policy about whether International Relations was still an ‘American social science.’ With Charles King’s recent article in Foreign Affairs on the Decline of International Studies in the United States, how do you envision the future of international relations in the so-called “Rest”?

Stephen Walt: King’s article was about the declining study of areas and languages, not about a disinterest in international relations. My sense is that there is still enormous interesting in international topics, and both undergraduate and graduate interest in IR remains strong. Because US universities are so strong, the United States will still have enormous influence on this field for many years. But as other countries develop their own academic programs, I would expect them to play a somewhat larger role too.

International Relations academia is sometimes criticized of being stuck within its Ivory Tower. What would you say to that?

Stephen Walt: Two things: first, having some distance from the policy world is a good thing, because it allows academics to say what they think and to challenge conventional wisdoms. Second, being totally removed from real-world issues is not good, because it leads academics to waste their efforts on irrelevant topics and it means that society at large cannot benefit from their work. The key is to strike the right balance between academic rigor and real-world relevance, and to work hard at challenging prevailing orthodoxies.

What does realism explain about international politics that other schools of thought cannot? What does it add to our understanding of international relations? 

Stephen Walt: More than any other approach, realism provides a clear, simple, and cogent explanation for a wide variety of international phenomena, including war, alliances, the rise and fall of nations, the tendency for rivals to emulate each other over time, the fragility of most efforts at international cooperation, etc. Realism explains why states with very different domestic characteristics often act in strikingly similar ways, and helps us understand why the behavior of states is frequently so contrary to our professed ideals and moral values. It doesn’t explain every single case or every aspect of international relations, but trying to understand world politics without realism is like trying to understand physics without Newton’s laws of motion.

Illustration by Javier Jaén for the New York Times

Illustration by Javier Jaén for the New York Times

We have seen in recent times an increasing American disinclination, thanks to a decade of being at war, to project its power abroad to the extent that characterized the early 2000s. In this context, however, why have other States not looked to take on the role that the United States played vis-à-vis international peace and security?

Stephen Walt: There are two reasons. First, no other states have the capability to play the global role that the United States has played over the past fifty years: one needs to have enormous economic and military power to aspire to that role. Second, other states have seen how costly and ineffective U.S. foreign policy has been over the past twenty years, and they have no desire to engage in similar follies themselves.

You aren’t the biggest fan of the BRICS. What do you think about the future of this relationship? 

Stephen Walt: That’s not quite right. I’m not opposed to any of the BRICS; indeed, I wrote in my article “The End of the American Era” that their emergence was one of the features constraining U.S. dominance. At the same time, I don’t think the “BRICs” label is all that useful, given the vast differences between Brazil, Russia, India, and China today.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

 Stephen Walt: Political culture is more important than I used to think; states and peoples change slowly and cultural patterns are often very durable. I’m also more impressed by the ability of smart and well-informed leaders to make foolish decisions. Lastly, I have more respect for the limits of social science than I did while in graduate school: it is useful for many things, but remains a rather crude and imperfect enterprise.

What prompted these shifts is simple: experience.

 What would be your advice to students of international relations? 

Stephen Walt: You should study this field if you find it truly fascinating; if not, there are lots of other ways to make a living and to contribute to the world at large. If you do, my advice is to 1) read a lot, including works you disagree with; 2) don’t be afraid to challenge the consensus and take on powerful interests (hopefully after you have tenure), and 3) be sure to question your own ideas and encourage your friends and colleagues to challenge you.   And make sure you enjoy yourself: if studying IR isn’t fun, you may want to consider another line of work.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He currently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and also serves as the Co-Editor of Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Professor Walt is the author of The Origins of Alliances (1987), Revolution and War (1996), Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author John J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007). Professor Walt also maintains a weekly blog on international politics at Foreign  Policy.

Pranay Ahluwalia

Pranay Ahluwalia

Pranay Ahluwalia co-founded InPRA in 2014. He served as an Editor for International Politics and also as Managing Editor, until departing the InPRA team in December 2015.

If you would like to reach him, visit pranayahluwalia.com
Pranay Ahluwalia