Stephen Walt is the Robert and Rene Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was previously on the faculties of Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He is the author of books including The Origins of Alliances, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy. He is a frequent contributor to journals including Foreign Policy and International Security. He was educated at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.
Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?
Walt: What I try to do is apply both a theoretical knowledge about how international politics works and a sort of careful analysis of particular circumstances to untangle or unravel specific puzzles that are facing foreign . . . usually American foreign policy, but other countries’ foreign policies too. I’m interested in trying to examine what’s behind a lot of the policy debates. So if someone says, “Invading Iraq is a good idea”, and somebody else says, “No, I think invading Iraq is a bad idea”, that’s actually not just something we have to argue about. It’s a researchable question whether or not it’s going to be an attractive thing to do or a smart thing to do. I wrote an article before the Iraq war happened, for example, arguing that it was both unnecessary if you looked at the historical record of Saddam Hussein’s behavior. And if you understood the basic principles of deterrence theory, there was no need from a security point of view to invade Iraq. I think you could also look at the history of foreign military interventions and military occupations. If you looked at the history carefully, it would provide lots of warnings that not only was it unnecessary, but it probably would be foolish and unwise and very expensive. So it wasn’t just something where you had to argue back and forth. You could actually research it and come up with, I think, a better recommendation than the one the country ultimately followed. And that’s in a sense what I’ve done at various points in my career – looked at policy debates that were happening and tried to bring social science tools to bear on those debates so we’d have some greater insight as to what they’re . . . what they’re all about and what the right answer might be.