Stephen M. Walt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Balancing American Power in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Stephen M. Walt, Academic Dean and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard University; November 15, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Steve, welcome back to Berkeley.

Very nice to be back here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico. My father actually worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory but we left there when I was about eight months old, settled in the Bay Area, down in Los Altos. I grew up in Los Altos Hills, did my undergraduate work at Stanford, and then graduate work at Berkeley. So, I was a product of the Bay Area until I was twenty-five.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My father's a physicist and he always made it clear that intellectual activity was the highest thing you could aspire to. He also taught me a lot, mostly through example, about how doing something you really loved was the greatest gift you could have in life. So, when I was growing up (and I might add, I wasn't much of a student), there was this sense that you've got to find what it is you really love doing and do that, as opposed to just doing something to make money. He was also very interested in military affairs, military history, and things like that, so I'm sure a lot of that rubbed off on me when I was growing up. I had gotten interested in military history as a kid, and that carried with me all the way to the present.

What about your mother?

My mother was a teacher. She went to UCLA, taught school for a number of years, a very bright woman. But I think she was very much in the traditional mold that ultimately she wanted to raise kids, be a wife and mother. I used to think that she was the person who was the humanities influence in my life. I'm not sure that's true, but it was the nice yin and yang of a physicist for a father and a more humanistically oriented mother.

In the public schools did you have any teachers who reinforced this interest in international politics and military affairs?

Not particularly. I had a number of pretty influential teachers but not in an intellectual sense. There were several teachers, a fifth grade teacher I had, a history teacher in high school, a couple of sports coaches as well, and the main influence they all had on me was to put the bar out a little further, to imply, "Gee, you're not doing as well as you could," and convey that they weren't really going to have much respect for me unless I did better. They were quite good at figuring out what button to press to try and get a little more performance out of me.

What did you major in at Stanford?

I started out majoring in chemistry -- I was going to be a biochemist -- and abandoned that after my freshman year, after an encounter with organic chemistry which didn't go particularly well. I shifted my major to history and was a history major for about a year. What I realized at that point, at the end of my sophomore year, was that the history I really cared about was international history. At that point I discovered that Stanford had an interdisciplinary International Relations major which is what I really was interested in at that point. So, I shifted at the beginning of my junior year to the International Relations major.

I had an odd experience -- I'd gotten a summer job working for Robert North, who was a political science professor who did some important international relations work in the sixties and seventies. I got a summer job collecting data for him, and the first semester of my junior year I ended up simultaneously taking Bob Keohane's "Introduction to International Relations" and Bob North's graduate-level IR theory course. So, I was taking the graduate Ph.D.-level IR theory course and the introduction to IR simultaneously, and just loved it. I did better in the graduate course than I did in Keohane's class.

Keohane later became a colleague of yours at Harvard. Right?

No, he'd left Harvard by the time I got there.

What led you to make the trek from Stanford to Berkeley? Of course, this is Big Game week, so this is a loaded question.

It was odd because when I applied to graduate schools I originally didn't think I wanted to go to Berkeley, partly because I'd spent so much of my life in the Bay Area. I thought it was time to get out and see another part of the world. But by the time I had visited enough graduate schools and looked at the options I had in front of me, I decided I wanted to go to Berkeley. I think there were two things that did it. One was I was already familiar with Ken Waltz's work and I admired that, so I came to Berkeley with the hopes that I would end up working with him. Also, when I visited here, several graduate students who showed me around conveyed that it was a very smart, lively, active, intellectually engaged group of graduate students. I have always believed that you learn as much from your fellow students as you learn from your instructors, and therefore that sounded very attractive to me. It turned out to be true as well.

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