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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One way that you can practice your ideas is to participate in the debate, which you did, but you're also academic dean at the Kennedy School, which is the premier public policy school in the United States. So, I'm just curious -- I'm sure you could talk for hours on this, but briefly, how does your role and the curriculum there try to make theory relevant to policy in the way we educate students?

I find teaching at the Kennedy School -- I've taught at Princeton, I've been a course assistant at Berkeley and at Harvard, I've taught for ten years at the University of Chicago, so I've now got a pretty wide range of experience. Teaching at the Kennedy School has been the most challenging teaching I've ever done. I teach a course there which is an international relations theory course for people who are public policy students. They range in age from probably twenty-five to forty-five; some of them have extensive government experience, about 40 percent of our students are from overseas, so you have a very diverse audience. If you want to talk about Asian politics, there's someone from Japan, and someone from China, and someone from Taiwan, and someone from the Philippines, and someone from Korea, all in the room, and they all have opinions, along with some Americans and people from elsewhere, which makes for a very rich discussion.

But these are all people who intend to go off to do work in the real world, and I teach an IR theory course where I feel the constant burden to make the ideas I'm presenting useful and relevant. I want everyone in the class to say, "Gee, I can see how this is going to help me do my job." That was not a constraint I had when I taught, say, at the University of Chicago, where I was just preparing people to go off and be academics themselves and they had to learn the basic theories, and learn how to critique, and learn how to develop new ones of their own. They didn't have to say, "Well, why is it important to understand balancing behaviors? Why is it important to understand how international regimes work or don't work? Why is it important to think through the implications of social constructivism if I'm going to be a foreign service officer?"

I find that both challenging, but also when it works, very exhilarating. You're giving people tools, ways of thinking about the world, that they then use and apply to situations as they arise, and hopefully you've also given them enough skepticism for the limits of the tools, so that they don't become someone who just slavishly applies some idea they learned twenty years ago when it might or might not be relevant.

Is case study important in this work?

Case study is important, although I have thus far made pretty sparing use of case studies. I do a few; I often invent hypothetical cases of different kinds that are used as a way of illustrating the point in a way that looks realistic, even if it's not based on an actual case. But I do find it very helpful to bring things down to earth and say, "All right, remember the set of ideas we talked about last time? Now let's look at, say, the land mines treaty and ask, "How would we think through why the land mines treaty is on the agenda, and why is it going to turn out the way it is, and what should the American interests be, and what are other countries doing with the land mines treaty to try and bring about a particular change in some way?" Making it concrete usually helps a lot.

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