Stephen M. Walt

The Difference Between Realists and Liberals

We tend to think that scholars embrace particular theoretical orientations simply because they conclude that certain theories fit the empirical evidence better than others do. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that almost all social science theories aren’t especially powerful and that the available evidence for assessing them is often ambiguous or mixed. ...

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We tend to think that scholars embrace particular theoretical orientations simply because they conclude that certain theories fit the empirical evidence better than others do. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that almost all social science theories aren’t especially powerful and that the available evidence for assessing them is often ambiguous or mixed. If that is the case, other factors are likely to play a role in determining which theories we believe.

In particular, is it possible that theoretical affinities reflect at least in part each individual’s basic personality traits or worldview? Consider that the most prominent realist scholars are all intellectual loners, in the sense that the overwhelming majority of their scholarship is sole-authored. I am thinking here of scholars such as E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Krasner (and myself, for that matter). One might add George Kennan or Henry Kissinger to that list, as both are normally thought of as “realists” and virtually all their published work appears with a single byline. Although some of these scholars occasionally wrote with others and were important providers of various collective goods, they generally worked alone. (My joint work with Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is an exception that does not disprove the rule, as it was not a work of IR theory and working together was essential for withstanding the firestorm of vituperation we knew we would and did receive). In short, realists appear to view the academic enterprise as a “self-help” system, where each scholar toils on his or her own and where scholarly standing is mostly the result of individual achievement. You know: kind of the way realists think about international politics.

By contrast, many of the most prominent liberal scholars have been enthusiastic collaborators. Think of Robert Keohane, who first came to prominence through his joint work with Joseph Nye, but who has subsequently co-authored or co-edited books and articles with a wide array of other scholars. The same is also true of Nye: Although he has written a number of books on his own, he has also collaborated with Keohane and many others over a long, prolific career. Ditto Bruce Russett, Michael Doyle, Martha Finnemore, John Ikenberry, Richard Rosecrance, Thomas Risse, and Kathryn Sikkink. Each has done important solo work, but their CVs are also full of joint publications and collaborative projects.

I can think of a few exceptions to this pattern, but it is striking how few card-carrying realists are prolific collaborators and how few liberal IR scholars are consistent lone wolves.

Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting one way of doing scholarship is superior to the other; rather, my question is whether there is a connection between one’s scholarly affinities and one’s personality or Weltanschauung. Scholars who emphasize interdependence and institutions in their publications also seem to be more likely to work in interdependent ways, while those who tend to emphasize anarchy, insecurity, and competition approach their own scholarly work in more zero-sum terms, wary of entangling alliances.

I am also not suggesting that personality is the only thing — or even the main factor — that shapes someone’s theoretical preferences. Our beliefs about how the world works are also shaped by our life experiences, by whom we happened to meet in college or graduate school, by important real-world events, and even by purely instrumental incentives such as the availability of research funding. And yes: Evidence plays an important role; indeed, it can sometimes force us to rethink even our most fundamental theoretical assumptions.

Lastly, I’m not arguing that scholars who work in the liberal tradition are less ambitious, less driven, or less competitive than their realist counterparts. When it comes to professional standing, status, career advancement, etc., everyone seems to be sensitive to relative gains.

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

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