- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I was at a book party last night, and a colleague and I started talking about our favorite books in the field. I remarked that one of the odd things about IR (and most social science, for that matter) is that it is rarely entertaining. To be sure, a lot of the work is interesting, and when you read a really terrific book, there can be a genuine sense of intellectual excitement. But how often does one read a work of political science or international relations and find it a genuine pleasure to read? And in particular, how many scholars in the field of IR are truly amusing or entertaining writers?
I can’t think of many. Make a list of the big names in the IR field: Waltz, Huntington, Mearsheimer, Nye, Jervis, Simmons, Wendt, Keohane, Krasner, Katzenstein, Waever, Sikkink, etc., etc. Most of them are lucid prose stylists, but with the partial exception of Waltz (who gets off some acerbic sallies on occasion), you’d hardly call any of them a particularly witty writer.
This may be partly due to the subject matter (it’s tough to make a lot of jokes when you write about war and peace), but I think it also reflects the normal academic desire to Be Taken Seriously as a Social Scientist. Indeed, the conventions of most academic journals seem deliberately designed to encourage a dry, leaden prose style that is devoid of any personality whatsoever.
So here’s my question: who are the most amusing, entertaining, or witty writers in the field of international relations and foreign policy? I don’t mean books or aticles that are "funny" because they are wildly off-base; I mean scholars who are a joy to read because their prose is lively, they offer amusing asides, and maybe even manage a laugh-out-loud witticism on occasion. And to narrow the field a bit more, let’s exclude journalists (who are rarely all that amusing but usually have livelier writing styles).
My nominees would be John Mueller, James Scott, and Thomas Schelling. Honorable mentions might go to Dan Drezner (for his book on zombies), and Geoffrey Blainey (for his The Causes of War, though Blainey is really a historian/journalist). My three main nominees are all serious academics with long records of scholarly achievement, but each of them is also a joy to read, in part because their prose styles are relaxed and unpretentious and because each is capable of genuine wit.
So nominations are now open. "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Who’s the wittiest IR scholar of them all?"