Stephen M. Walt

Is IR still ‘an American social science?’

Back when I was in graduate school, Stanley Hoffmann wrote an essay in Daedalus entitled "An American Social Science: International Relations." Among other things, he argued that the field of international relations was dominated by scholars from North America, and especially the United States, in part due to the U.S. dominant global role in post-World ...

Natashia Ruby via Flickr Creative Commons
Natashia Ruby via Flickr Creative Commons

Back when I was in graduate school, Stanley Hoffmann wrote an essay in Daedalus entitled "An American Social Science: International Relations." Among other things, he argued that the field of international relations was dominated by scholars from North America, and especially the United States, in part due to the U.S. dominant global role in post-World War II era. (Foreign-born scholars like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Peter Katzenstein, and the late Ernst Haas are exceptions that support the rule, as each received most if not all of their advanced training in the United States)

Has this situation changed? I ask this in part because lately I’ve been thinking about faculty recruiting at Harvard’s Kennedy School. We have a very strong IR faculty — my colleagues include Joe Nye, John Ruggie, Graham Allison, Samantha Power (on leave), Ash Carter (ditto), Monica Toft, Nicholas Burns, Meghan O’Sullivan, etc. — but notice that this is a very U.S.-centric group, even though over 40 percent of our students come from overseas. We are fortunate to have a few colleagues from other countries (such as Karl Kaiser and Jacqueline Bhabha), but the center of gravity is decidedly Washington-focused. And we’re no different in this regard than peer institutions like Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

I was discussing this issue with a colleague in D.C. the other day, and he argued that one reason was the simple fact that there were hardly any world-class foreign policy intellectuals outside the Anglo-Saxon world. He wasn’t saying that there weren’t smart people writing on world affairs in other countries; his point was that there are very few people writing on foreign affairs outside North America or Britain whose works become the object of global attention and debate. In other words, there’s no German, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, or Indian equivalent of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, or Joseph Nye’s various writings on "soft power."

I am definitely not suggesting that there are no good IR scholars outside the Anglo-Saxon world; names like Ole Waever, Thomas Risse, Kanti Bajpai, Odd Arne Westad, C. Raja Mohan, Nils Peter Gleditsch, Amitav Acharya, Helga Haftendorn, and a number of others come easily to mind. And there’s no shortage of "public intellectuals" overseas — think Kishore Mahbubbani, Tariq Ramadan, Jurgen Habermas, Julia Kristeva, etc. — and occasionally they get broader attention. But I’m still struck by the relative dearth of "big thinking" on global affairs from people outside the trans-Atlantic axis, including continental Europe. And by "big thinking" I mean ideas and arguments that immediately trigger debates that cross national boundaries, and become key elements in a global conversation.

One might argue that this gap is all due to social networks; people outside the Anglo-Saxon world don’t have access to the same English-language journals and book publishers that dominate global distribution systems. This problem might be part of the explanation, and it is consistent with the observation that plenty of foreign-born intellectuals migrate to the United States or Britain and become prominent academics or commentators (e.g., Amartya Sen, Dani Rodrik, Moises Naim, Peter Singer, Fareed Zakaria, and others). But that’s probably not the whole story, because plenty of foreign novelists and historians working in their home countries don’t seem to have much trouble cracking the global market. And that suggests that journal editors and book publishers in the United States and Britain would be delighted to publish authors from nearly anywhere, if they thought they would sell.

My explanation for this anomaly has two parts. The first part is Hoffman’s original explanation: major powers inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about global affairs and the rest of the world pays a lot of attention to what thinkers in the major powers are saying because they worry about what the major powers are going to do. Given that Britain was a major world power for centuries and the United States has enjoyed a position of primacy for sixty years or more, it’s not surprising that Anglo-Saxon scholarship and commentary on world affairs has cast such a wide shadow.

The second part has to do with the politics and sociology of the scholarly community itself. Authoritarian societies like Russia or China or Saudi Arabia are not going to be very good at social science, for the obvious reason that these governments cannot permit wide-ranging thought and debate and must constantly channel discourse in politically permissive directions. You might have first-class mathematicians or doctors or engineers in such a society, but you aren’t going to generate many (any?) world-class social scientists. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and to some extent Britain, have highly competitive academic markets: instead having a few big institutions and a few key gatekeepers who can determine who gets appointed or promoted, the academic world in the United States is much more wide-open. There are more than two thousand four-year colleges and universities in the United States, which makes it largely impossible to impose a single intellectual orthodoxy on any field of study. This is even true in fields like economics, which has a larger core of accepted principles but still features intense debates between monetarists, Keynesians, neo-Keynesians, and assorted other tribes.

Put these two reasons together, and it’s not surprising that the IR field is still dominated by scholars from the Anglo-Saxon world (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada).

That said, I do have this nagging doubt that maybe I’ve missed something or someone. So nominations are now open: who are the most important writers on foreign affairs operating outside the Anglo-Saxon world?

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

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