Obituary

A Realist Tribute to an Extraordinary Idealist

John Ruggie straddled the worlds of academia and policymaking—and was a powerful force in each.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
John Ruggie speaks onstage during the United Nations Global Compact 15TH Anniversary Celebration at Cipriani 42nd Street on June 25, 2015 in New York City.
John Ruggie speaks onstage during the United Nations Global Compact 15TH Anniversary Celebration at Cipriani 42nd Street on June 25, 2015 in New York City. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for UN Global Compact

During my first year in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, I took a seminar titled “Future World Orders.” Early in the term, during a discussion of Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society, I made what I thought were some trenchant comments about the book. The young assistant professor teaching the course replied that there were two problems with what I had just said. First, my argument was tautological. Second, it was empirically wrong, and he added dryly that to achieve both errors in one comment was a neat trick. He said this gently, however, and I felt I’d been schooled but not humiliated. His real point was that I might want to do a bit more thinking before I opened my mouth.

The young professor who gave me this important lesson was John Ruggie, who passed away last week. I was fortunate to have him as a teacher in that class back in 1978, and as a colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School over the past 20 years. As those who knew him can attest, John was an exceptional person, one of only a handful of political scientists who combined equally outstanding contributions to scholarship with equally significant achievements in the real world. Most scholar-practitioners turn out to be better at one activity than the other, but John was a master in both realms.

John’s scholarly profile was unusual for a political scientist. Although he published several books over the course of his career, he never wrote a magnum opus that laid out his vision of the world in detail. Instead, his academic reputation rests primarily on a set of remarkable essays, works of tremendous range and vision, and each the product of deep learning and careful thought.

During my first year in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, I took a seminar titled “Future World Orders.” Early in the term, during a discussion of Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society, I made what I thought were some trenchant comments about the book. The young assistant professor teaching the course replied that there were two problems with what I had just said. First, my argument was tautological. Second, it was empirically wrong, and he added dryly that to achieve both errors in one comment was a neat trick. He said this gently, however, and I felt I’d been schooled but not humiliated. His real point was that I might want to do a bit more thinking before I opened my mouth.

The young professor who gave me this important lesson was John Ruggie, who passed away last week. I was fortunate to have him as a teacher in that class back in 1978, and as a colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School over the past 20 years. As those who knew him can attest, John was an exceptional person, one of only a handful of political scientists who combined equally outstanding contributions to scholarship with equally significant achievements in the real world. Most scholar-practitioners turn out to be better at one activity than the other, but John was a master in both realms.

John’s scholarly profile was unusual for a political scientist. Although he published several books over the course of his career, he never wrote a magnum opus that laid out his vision of the world in detail. Instead, his academic reputation rests primarily on a set of remarkable essays, works of tremendous range and vision, and each the product of deep learning and careful thought.

His best-known work is probably “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,” an elegant and powerful account of the origins of the Bretton Woods economic order and the tensions that shaped it and ultimately led to its demise. The late Robert Gilpin of Princeton University, himself a towering figure in international political economy, once told me that he thought it was the single best article in the history of the field. Not surprisingly, one recent survey found that it was the single most widely cited article in international political economy as well.

Other classic Ruggie articles include “Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution,” which explained the critical role that multilateral norms played in the postwar liberal order and helped spark a new wave of interest in the phenomenon, and “Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations,” which wrestled with the enduring question of how a system based on territorial states might evolve without replacing existing states with some new political form. A personal favorite of mine is “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge,” a powerfully argued piece that convinced even a simple-minded realist like me to take social constructivism more seriously. I had my disagreements with some of his ideas over the years, of course, but engaging with them was always edifying.

John had strongly held views on how one should think about world politics, but he was also tolerant of perspectives that he did not share. It is not surprising, for example, that Kenneth Waltz gave John (and Robert Jervis) a special word of thanks in the acknowledgements to his landmark Theory of International Politics, writing that Ruggie had read his next-to-last draft “with care and insight that would amaze anyone unacquainted with [his] critical talents.” John subsequently published a lengthy review essay critiquing Waltz’s famous book, which was later included in the edited volume Neorealism and Its Critics. If you read Waltz’s response to the various critiques assembled there, it is clear that the criticisms he took most seriously and went to the greatest lengths to answer were John’s. Among other things, their exchange is also a model of intense but respectful scholarly disagreement.

Had John done nothing but write these various works, his reputation as a major figure in the field would be secure. But there was a second dimension to his life and career, and in certain respects it was even more impressive. After serving as director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and as dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, John was appointed assistant secretary-general for strategic planning at the United Nations from 1997 to 2001. In that role he was the intellectual architect of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Global Compact, the world’s largest global corporate citizenship initiative, and a key figure in the formation of the Millennium Development Goals and the reform efforts that earned the U.N. and Annan the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. John always gave Annan the main credit for these achievements and downplayed his own role, but it was not hard to discern his influence on these endeavors.

Ruggie came to the Kennedy School in 2001 and directed its Center for Business and Government from 2002 to 2006. But there was yet another chapter to be written in his life: In 2005, he accepted Annan’s invitation to serve as special representative of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the relationship between business and human rights. Working with a variety of nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and other groups, John and his team eventually produced a set of “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” that were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council (successor to the original commission) in 2011.

As recounted in his 2013 book Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights, developing and winning acceptance of the Guiding Principles was a daunting task. There was no existing framework to guide his efforts, the legal environment was murky, global corporations were wary of measures that might affect the bottom line, and governments and the activist community posed impressive obstacles of their own. Yet John’s creativity, flexibility, diplomatic street smarts, and sheer persistence ultimately carried the day and created mechanisms that have already improved human rights practice around the world.

His work on the Guiding Principles led to yet another real-world assignment, advising FIFA on how the governing body could bring global soccer into greater compliance with emerging human rights norms. As a lifelong sports fan, he was tickled by this new job, but that didn’t stop him from issuing a hard-hitting report calling for major reforms in FIFA’s practices. FIFA’s adherence to date may have fallen short of John’s hopes, but once again he had provided a pathway by which a more just and humane world could be achieved.

John received many well-deserved honors throughout his career, but I sometimes think his gifts and accomplishments should have been celebrated even more widely than they were. It is one thing for an academic to leave their mark in the policy world by serving in government in a powerful country like the United States, with vast capabilities and leverage to bring to bear on difficult problems. John’s policy achievements were of a different nature and arguably far more impressive. With scant hard power at his disposal, he had to conjure influence and impact out of thin air, through the power of his ideas and his deep appreciation for the nuances of global policy formation. That he did so successfully is both a testimony to his many gifts and his commitment to building a better world, and his work provides a textbook illustration of how the right people can produce positive change even in unlikely circumstances.

John was a man of firm convictions and deeply held principles. He knew his own worth and did not lack confidence, but he was also witty, self-deprecating, and more comfortable sharing credit than seizing the spotlight. Our theoretical outlooks were sharply different, but our interactions over the years were unfailingly enjoyable and never failed to make me think again. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have him as a teacher, colleague, and friend for many years, and his untimely passing has already sent a shock wave through the international relations community. To say that he will be greatly missed is an extraordinary understatement, but John Ruggie was an extraordinary man.

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

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