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Thu. February 29, 2024
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Interview with Professor Stephen Walt, Harvard University


Gustavo Macedo: As one of the most acknowledged International Relations theorists nowadays, what are your motivations to study and to teach International Relations? Also, what is THE book of Foreign Affairs? Professor Stephen Walt: I study and write about International Affairs for two reasons: one because I do find it genuinely fascinating to try to understand what is happening in the world and how different peoples are interacting with each other second because I want to try to make the world a more peaceful place that’s why I decided to go to graduate school in the first place, because I believe that intellectuals can play a very positive role and that is their job: to think through and then write what they think as honestly as they can, so that we have a more open discussion with different possibilities everything I do is designed to try and do that. Also, I find it immensely fun, but I also think that academia can make the world a better place in all kinds of aspects. Mr. Macedo: And your favorite book? Prof. Walt: I’m really torned on this one, but I will say that – can I give two? Well, I’d say Kenneth Waltz’s “Man, the State and War”. Mr. Macedo: It was part of the list you appointed on your blog, right? My “top ten” books every student of International Relations should read Prof. Walt: It was. It’s just a real classic that organizes and make sense it’s an enormous amount of thinking about International Affairs. It’s a wonderful book. I’ll stop here, I’ll leave with that one. Mr. Macedo: Idealism/liberalism is a theory that has been gaining a lot of ground in academia with that in mind, do you think there’s room, in the future, for realism to develop/improve as a theory? Prof. Walt: Yes, I still believe Realism tells you more about International Politics than any of the other perspectives, and I believe that in the decades ahead we’ll see that being exhibited more and more. People were very optimistic at the end of the Cold War: Bill Clinton once said that “cynical calculus of pure power politics is obsolete…” 1992 Bill Clinton’s campaign speech Mr. Macedo: “The End of History”, right? Prof. Walt: Yes, we had this famous argument about the End of History, and I think now, 20 years later, people realize that was premature and that in fact competition among major powers in different regions is going to continue for a long time, therefore realist theory, broadly speaking, will remain very useful, very relevant. I also believe that realist theories are constantly getting better. I think that we understand more about the logic of realist theory now than we did 30 years ago, so I think Kenneth Waltz’s theory of International Politics was better than either of E. H. Carr’s or Hans Morgenthau’s, which has lots of inconsistencies and problems. I think John Mearsheimer’s book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” is an improvement on Waltz in some respects. I think that some of the work I did, built on Waltz’s work, is more accurate than some of his arguments, they tell a better picture. So theories are getting better over time, but none of them are great to be revolutions, and turn the realist theory upside down. And the other thing to say is that no Social Science’s theories, specially no International Relations theories, are really great. They’re all flawed and there are always cases they don’t fully explain, as their explanatory power is limited, at the same time they are indispensable because we can’t make sense out of this enormously complicated world without some set of simple ideas that help make sense out of all that. Mr. Macedo: What is your opinion regarding Snowden’s case? Is the United States right to demand his return, so that he can go on a trial, or is Snowden correct in revealing NSA’s top secret government information? Prof. Walt: I believe Snowden did the United States an enormous service by revealing what he did. He is what we call it a whistle-blower. He understood that the Security Agency was in some ways out of control and it was necessary to bring this to public attention. I therefore believe that even if he broke the law – and he may well have violated some US laws - that he should be pardoned by president Obama, and he can be pardoned even if without being convicted – it’s possible for the president pardon him – and I believe that this is what president Obama should do, I don’t think president Obama will do, but that’s what I think he should probably do. Patricia G. Derolle: In Professor Oliver Stuenkel’s blog, on the review of your book “Taming American Power”, he states that your “insights are still as valid today as they were back in 2005”. This shows that US Foreign Policy hasn’t changed its main principles for instance, the rhetoric of intervention for a better world. Do you agree with this opinion? Why or why not? Prof. Walt: I think there have been some modest shifts in US Foreign Policy. In particular, there is no appetite in the United Sates now for any kind of military action that people think might lead to a long-term occupation of another country. So, if people think that we are going to get in to places like Iraq or Afghanistan again, they are wrong – that’s what has changed. What hasn’t changed is the continued effort to use other forms of power in a more limited and focused way, in order to try or dictate or determine what is going to happen in different parts of the world and the United States still has an enormous military footprint in many parts of the world, which are still actively involved in domestic politics, so there has been some minor changes in tactics but I would say not a major change in the American approach to the world, and because things did not change as much as American and people outside the United Sates expected, many of the ideas in that book remain relevant today. Ms. Derolle: You’ve mentioned in your blog that you would like to know our opinion concerning US Foreign Policy “Flying down to Rio”, however, we would also like to know your opinion about Brazilian Foreign Policy. Which positive aspects of the Brazilian emergence can you point out, and which challenges will Brazil face ahead? Can you foresee USA-Brazil diplomatic relations? Also, you’ve mentioned on your lecture that Brazil and the United States have a friendly diplomatic relations. Will they continue to have such a relationship after NSA’s case? Prof. Walt: I’m very reluctant to say very much about Brazil, because I’ve been here for three days and I hardly consider myself an expert. Ms. Derolle: Can you give us your impressions about it? Prof. Walt: Well, with that in mind, this is a very limited experience. I think what has been happening in Brazil for the past 10 years or more is that they are exciting and most Americans, if they didn’t know about it at all, are encouraged by it. I think the economic growth of the country, the attempts to deal with some of the social problems here, the fact that many people have come out of poverty is tremendously positive and that they are moving forward at least in my lifetime, I don’t imagine the United States and Brazil being hostile or being rivals in any particular way. If Brazil continues to rise, continues to grow, there are going to be some issues where it will disagree with the United States Oliver Stuenkel’s “Why Dilma is right to say no”, on Brazil’s option of postponing a State visit to Washington/DC, and if it becomes stronger it will be in a better position to defend its position – not force the United States to do what Brazil wants -, but force the United States to deal with Brazil on a somewhat more even basis, but that’s a common situation in International Politics. Ms. Derolle: It could be any emerging country, not only Brazil. Prof. Walt: That’s right, not only Brazil. One of the things the United States, over the next 50 years will need to get used to, is not being threatened by others, but simply have to bargain with them a little bit more than we may have to do in the past, that’s not a bad thing. Ms. Derolle: Do you believe that the world will ‘remain’ unipolar? Prof. Walt: I think the United States will remain the most influential and powerful country for the rest of my lifetime – and I intend to live for a long time. What happens after that I’m not sure. I can imagine a sort of sino-american bipolarity emerging I can also imagine a sort of multipolar world, but it will be a multipolar world in which the United States is still the strongest of those major powers by a considerable margin. Its economy will still be considerable by large, its population is going to continue to rise. Mr. Macedo: And now there’s shale gas coming… Prof. Walt: That’s right. The shale gas revolution is going to have a very positive economic effects on the United States as well. Mr. Macedo: It will be the United States independence from the Middle East, don’t you think so? Prof. Walt: Partly that. It will lower the energy costs for American manufacturing and for American industry, so it will have very positive economic benefits we may even become an energy exporter again, which, then, really has interesting implications because it means that instead of being interested in low energy prices – which is the way the United States has tended to think about this problem -, we may actually want for prices to go up because we want to make money, and also because if you worry about climate change, high energy prices will be a good thing, right? If the price of oil and gas were to triple tomorrow, this would be very costly, very expensive and have lots of bad economic effects, but it would force countries all over the world to adjust, to conserve, to look for alternative sources of energy, and that would be good for the environment. So you can imagine the United States changing its views on energy prices quite dramatically, if shale gas really pays off. Mr. Macedo: Putin sent an open letter to Obama this week “A Plea for Caution From Russia. What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria”. He stated that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation”. Do you agree with his statement? As a realist theorist, and as an American citizen, how would you answer to that? Prof. Walt: I think Putin has made a very obvious point that it is dangerous for countries to be so convinced of their own exceptionalism “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, by Stephen Walt, that they act in ways that turn out to be foolish or counterproductive, and even though all great powers tend to see themselves as special, they need to recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t always agree. So, in that sense, I think he’s said something fairly obvious. I think the United States has many unique and positive qualities, but like most great powers, we are also a little bit too willing to congratulate ourselves for our virtues and not to focus enough attention on the things we need to improve. I see my job as helping us improve and not simply congratulating ourselves. Mr. Macedo: This is an informal question: once you tweeted that you could relate Arrested Development’s characters to US institutions. In this case, who would play the NSA? Ms. Derolle: I would say Tobias Fünke! Prof. Walt: You’re going to have to ask me a different question. Actually, I don’t remember the characters’ names. The main character, Jason Bateman, what’s his name? Ms. Derolle: Michael Bluth. The son… Prof. Walt: Yes, the son. I actually think the United States is a lot like Michael Bluth in the following sense: he has good intentions, he is trying to do the right thing, and simply doesn’t understand what’s going on, right? And most of his plans don’t work out. The United States is a lot like Michael Bluth. I guess I’ll just stop here… Ms. Derolle: And the NSA? Prof. Walt: Oh, and who plays the NSA… It’s the one played by Will Arnett George Oscar “Gob” Bluth II. Ms. Derolle: The other son? Prof. Walt: Yes, the one who is completely out of control! Stephen Walt is Professor at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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