Stephen M. Walt

Open mic topic II: who are the most underrated scholars in the IR field?

I’d like to follow up last week’s query about the “IR Hall of Fame” with a new “open-mic” question: who are the most underrated scholars in the history of the field? As I suspect most academics realize, the ivory tower is a less-than-perfect meritocracy. Success and renown are partly a function of one’s work, of ...

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I’d like to follow up last week’s query about the “IR Hall of Fame” with a new “open-mic” question: who are the most underrated scholars in the history of the field?

As I suspect most academics realize, the ivory tower is a less-than-perfect meritocracy. Success and renown are partly a function of one’s work, of course, but there are a lot of random elements in the process. Timing matters, picking a “hot topic” for one’s early work helps, being plugged into a well-placed network of scholars is a big plus, and sheer good fortune plays a role, too. All this is to say that cream usually rises, but not necessarily as far as it should.

To be clear: by “underrated” I don’t necessarily mean people who remained completely obscure despite having done great work. Rather, I would also include individuals who have done excellent work that did attract some attention, but nonetheless never got quite as much attention as it deserved.

My nominee in this category would be John Herz. Among other things, Herz identified the core concept of the “security dilemma” — which he described as:

A social constellation in which units of power (such as states or nations in international relations) find themselves whenever they exist side by side without higher authority that might impose standards of behavior upon them and thus protect them from attacking each other. In such a condition, a feeling of insecurity, deriving from mutual suspicion and mutual fear, comples these units to compete for ever more power in order to find more security, an effort which proves self-defeating because complete security remains ultimately unobtainable.”

Herz also wrote important works contrasting political realism and political idealism, on international law, and on the implications of nuclear weapons for world politics. He’s a respected figure in the history of the field, but as Jana Puglierin puts it in the current issue of the British journal International Relations (a special issue devoted to Herz’s thought), he “has so far not had the recognition his contribution to theorizing world politics deserves.”

So the floor is open: who are the other thinkers who deserve more recognition than they have heretofore received?

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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