MUNPlanet: Professor Walt, what is the state of the relationship between theory and policy in international relations? Is theory today more relevant for practice than 10 years ago, when you wrote the article on this subject?
Stephen Walt: Theory is always relevant—indeed, essential—for policymaking. The world is infinitely complex, and we all rely on mental maps to tell us what is most important and how key elements are connected. A good theory helps us identify the key causal relationships in a given setting, and helps us formulate policy responses that are more likely to produce the desired result. Whether they know it or not, policymakers are always using some sort of crude theory to make decisions; one task of scholars is to get policymakers better ways to understand the world so that leaders can make better choices.
MUNPlanet: “Pivot to Asia”: How do you see the situation in Asia and the U.S. foreign policy in this region? Can we say Asian international system has reached a level of mature anarchy which could write off any major world war in the coming decades?
Stephen Walt: I think a major world war is unlikely, because virtually everyone understands that the costs would be enormous and would outweigh any possible gains. That is partly due to the economic consequences, but also due to the shadow cast by nuclear weapons. So I have trouble imagining a deliberate attempt to launch a world war, such as occurred in 1914 or 1939. But I also believe we will see growing competition between the United States and China, as well as continued tensions in the Middle East and Eurasia, and these conflicts could escalate to a level that no leader originally intends. Sadly, history provides all too many examples of this sort of process.
"I think a major world war is unlikely, because virtually everyone understands that the costs would be enormous and would outweigh any possible gains... But I also believe we will see growing competition between the United States and China, as well as continued tensions in the Middle East and Eurasia, and these conflicts could escalate to a level that no leader originally intends."
"...we have seen power politics come back with a vengeance. The conflict in Ukraine is one obvious example, and so is China’s growing assertiveness in East Asia. Also, we should not forget that the United States has been throwing its weight around for quite some time, and pretty much ignoring international law when it suited it. Sadly, realism remains all too relevant to contemporary world politics."
MUNPlanet: We live in the ’risk society,’ to use the reference to Ulrich Beck. One gets the impression that non-military and non-economic risks and threats are not given enough attention in world politics. Why is that so, and is that actually a threat to the world?
MUNPlanet: What would be your advice to students of International Relations as to how best start their careers after they graduate? What is the importance of theory for careers?
MUNPlanet: Kenneth Waltz, one of the great IR scholars and the father of Structural Realism was your mentor when you were writing your doctoral dissertation at Berkeley. What it was like to have him as a mentor, and what would be your advice on how to write a good thesis?
MUNPlanet: How do you see the state of communication among peoples and communication between states in the era of globalization? What is your take on the role of online social networks in the conduct of politics and their effect on human nature?
MUNPlanet: Besides being a Harvard professor and IR scholar, you are also known for your blog at Foreign Policy. Why is blogging important today, and how you see the future of books in the time of blogs?
"...I find a lot of interesting ideas in a lot of contemporary historical writing, and I also think the revolution in behavioral economics could have far-reaching effects on how we think about foreign policy."
"...I would encourage young scholars (and future leaders) to be courageous, to question reigning orthodoxies, and to cultivate a support network of friends and allies who can back you up when you need it (and tell you when you’re wrong too)."
MUNPlanet: Who are the most innovative thinkers in IR today, and what could be the future breakthroughs within the field?
MUNPlanet: This year the United Nations marks 70th anniversary? How would the world look like if there were no United Nations, would it be a better place?
"My general advice to students at the beginning of their careers is to focus on big and important questions that are likely to be of enduring interest, rather than on today’s fad, and be prepared to work really hard for a decade or more to establish yourself."
MUNPlanet: How do you see the world in 2034, to paraphrase a Lakhdar Brahimi’s article on the future of the UN (2006)?
MUNPlanet: What would be your message to the young generation of scholars and leaders?
Stephen Walt: Resist the temptation to just do what is expedient, popular, or narrowly conformist. Ambitious young people face enormous pressures to conform: to follow the “conventional wisdom” instead of challenging ideas that are outmoded or harmful. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is correct, but I would encourage young scholars (and future leaders) to be courageous, to question reigning orthodoxies, and to cultivate a support network of friends and allies who can back you up when you need it (and tell you when you’re wrong too). If scholars and leaders are afraid of their own shadows, those problems I just mentioned are going to get worse instead of better.
MUNPlanet: Professor Walt, thank you for devoting your time for the interview with MUNPlanet.