Stephen Walt
Prof. of Intl. Affairs, Harvard University

What is your counsel?

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Open discussion is critical, says Walt.

Stephen Walt

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: Collectively, what should we be doing?

Walt: You know just to beat a dead horse now, I do think open discussion is really critical; and encouraging lots of different voices to be out there. I find now in the United States, for example, the debate on foreign policy is quite a narrow debate. Lots of agreement among the most visible members of the sort of foreign policy establishment; and people who are outside of that consensus very much marginalized in public discussion. But that’s just in foreign policy. So I like open discussion. The second thing that we have to remind ourselves is a country, that knowledge turns out to be a good thing; that we ought to be basing our policy decisions to the extent that we can on robust analysis; on the best available expertise; on . . . on facts. You know people call “reality-based analysis”. It’s troublesome when you read about a president who says, you know, he likes to go on his gut instincts. Nobody’s gut instincts are that good, and one of the things that has allowed us to get to where we are today as a country, but I think also more broadly in the world, has been to prize knowledge; to prize research; to place a lot of social resources in that place and encourage people to pursue ideas as much as they can. And it’s, I think, very short-sighted for any society when they start short changing its intellectual community. Or when it starts ruling certain ideas out of court and saying, “No, you can’t work on that. You shouldn’t write that. You shouldn’t say that.” That’s what strangles human creativity, and we’re gonna need some creative solutions to address the various problems we already talked about. Again we get that by valuing intellectuals of all kinds – natural scientists, philosophers, artists, etc. – but also giving them lots of freedom to explore ideas. Let me just add one other caveat to that. I do occasionally worry about the academic world, or at least parts of the academic world being really mired in what some friends of mine and I tend to call the “cult of irrelevance” – this idea of wanting to work on topics that are of great interest to you, and three of your friends, and two people at another university. And I think this is an abdication of our responsibility as intellectuals. We should be grappling with really big questions as much as we can, and questions that are of great importance. That’s why society allows us to have these very privileged positions as intellectuals, or college professors or whatever. And the way we should be paying society back is by using that to try and make the human condition better. Now we’re not all going to agree, but that’s okay because we’re more likely to collectively reach a wise position if we all think hard and then argue about it, and do so in public whenever possible.