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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Research

Let's talk a little now about your research. You mentioned your first book on alliance, and I'm going to show the three books to our audience because we want them to go out and buy them. In all three books, you ask yourself [key] questions. The first is The Origins of Alliances, book coverand I thought that one main theme here was the question of when do alliances form. Then you wrote Revolution and War, and you were asking what were the international responses when revolutions occur, how does the international system respond. In your most recent book, which we'll talk more about, Taming American Power, published by Norton, you're asking what other states can do about U.S. power.

I knew you when you were in graduate school here and I did not know all that you had written [since then], and so I came to the realization that you had been very busy. So, the first question is, in addition to whatever public debating you were doing or running schools of public policy, is there a common theme in all of these books? I think I found one but I'm going to ask you first.

I think there is. I was not one of those people who sort of left graduate school saying, "I've now got the next thirty years of my life mapped out, I'm going to do this, and then this, and then this." It's never been that way. I've usually had a pretty good idea what the next project was going to be about the time I finished each one, but I think there are a couple of themes. Certainly the genesis for each of the books was things I observed, not so much in the scholarly world but rather things I was observing in the policy debates that were happening at the time. So, The Origins of Alliances was actually driven by the realization that many debates about U.S. foreign policy were, in fact, debates about what would cause states to either back the United States, ally with us, or ally against us. The domino theory, for example, in Vietnam was an argument that if the United States lost in Vietnam, other states would lose confidence in American leadership, they would start making accommodations with the Soviet Union. In a term I used in the book, they would "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union if we ever appeared to be faltering.

There were others -- the argument that left-wing governments were naturally attracted by ideology to other left-wing governments was one I wanted to examine. Its point of origin was debates happening in the real world among policy makers and others about U.S. foreign policy, and what I saw was that there was really a theoretical question: Why do states support the United States or ally with the United States or against the United States? And therefore it could be treated as an IR theory question and given a fairly objective social science treatment, which would then tell us what American foreign policy ought to be.

The pay-off pitch in that particular book was that, in fact, international alliances worked very much to America's advantage, were a real source of strength in the Cold War, and as long as we didn't make some big mistakes in our foreign policy, [nations] were likely to be with us. Actually, it was an optimistic book about the condition of the United States in the Cold War which was ultimately borne out when the Soviet Union went under.

You wound up focusing a lot on the historical material that you had to either uncover yourself or that was available on the story of alliances in the Middle East, which was a new direction for you.

Yes, I'd never done any real work in Middle East politics and I was looking around for empirical material that I could use to try and test these things. I decided not to look at NATO because NATO hadn't changed much. I mean, it had evolved over time but there was no real change. But then I began to think about the Middle East and realized that alliances, both superpower alliances in the region but also the various coalitions that had formed among Middle Eastern countries, had fluctuated enormously throughout the Cold War period. [Since] I was trying to explain what brought states together or drove them apart, I would have a lot of variation to work with. I also thought in the back of my mind that the Middle East was an extraordinarily important part of the world and that learning a lot about what was going on there would be useful. I didn't learn Arabic, I didn't learn Hebrew, I didn't learn Farsi, but I tried to read as much as I possibly could in the existing literature so that I knew pretty much what the story was and could then use that to test these competing ideas about alliances.

You came to another important conclusion, which I think was original, namely that when you looked at places like the Middle East it wasn't just the balance of power which your Realist background would lead you to conclude or look for, but that in essence it was a balance of threat, the intentions of the actors, the other factors that led them to do things with their capabilities and not necessarily be threatened.

Right. The secret I need to reveal to all the listeners and watchers is that in fact that the phrase "balance of threat" never appears in my doctoral dissertation, which was the beginning point of the book. In fact, it doesn't appear until the very last version of the manuscript, where I did have a revelation in response to criticism I'd gotten from people that it was still too complicated. I suddenly said, "Gee, I'm talking about all these different kinds of balancing," and the light bulb clicked on one day and I said, "No, what I'm really talking about is balancing of threat."

A creative moment.

Right. I re-worked the final version of the manuscript, but it really was the phrase that came out of the book that has probably been remembered most, and some would regard as a big contribution. The light bulb clicked on at the end of the process, not at the beginning. book coverI'm not sure that's all that unusual but certainly true for me.

So, why Revolution next?

Another policy debate. That book was begun in the 1980s, in the late 1980s, as I was finishing the first book, and there the policy debate would be what are we going to do about the Nicaraguan revolution, what are we doing about revolutionary Iran? I again noticed that in the wake of revolutions during the Cold War, the United States almost always had a bad relationship with these revolutionary countries and had made a series of claims about them, that they were aggressive, that they were lining up with the Soviet Union, that they were actively supporting subversion and they were very, very dangerous. There was another claim that we often made which was, "But they're fragile, they're vulnerable, they would be easy to defeat if we could just push them a little bit." And I said, "There's a question here. What happens when a revolution occurs? Does it spread? Is it easily reversed and what does history tell us about this process?" I began working on a book that again was catalyzed or sparked by a set of policy debates in the United States for how to deal with revolutionary or radical states. I went back to the French Revolution and looked at France and Russia and the Iranian revolution, big cases, and then a chapter on some of the other cases as well, and laid out an argument for what the international consequences of revolutions are. It's actually -- of the three books I've written it's kind of my favorite, even though it was not as "successful" or, I think, as influential as the first one was.

It seems to me that when this movement from the balance of threat to then, especially in the revolution book, looking at intentions and the way we misperceive what the revolution is trying to do or is doing, and the way the revolution in turn is an entrée point into moving beyond your Realist background and looking at what's going on domestically. Is that fair? It suddenly struck me that if you're talking about intentions and you're not just looking at capability, then you're in the ballpark where you want to say, "Well, how do these countries see what's going on? What are the factors influencing them?"

As a theorist I've never believed that theories were religions, that you signed a loyalty oath to your advisor when you started working. I should say that Ken Waltz, who was my dissertation chair, was terrific in letting his students move on intellectually as they evolved, and he would offer his own views on things. He had very high standards, but he never said, "You have to reach the same conclusions I did," which was wonderful. Theories are tools, and you use the tool as far as it will take you and then you either use a different tool to get you the next distance or you have to start thinking creatively yourself about it. Being too slavishly devoted to a particular world view is usually a mistake. I think Realism as a broad perspective on international politics is very powerful, I think it's the best one we've got, but it's got lots of flaws and lots it doesn't explain [everything]. I've tended to focus on the problem rather than just writing books that are supposed to defend a particular world view, or God forbid, the world view of a bunch of my predecessors. I'd rather just work on the problem with the tools at hand. I tend to lean on Realist tools a lot because I think they're the most useful, but they're not the only ones.

Next page: Taming American Power

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