Looking Back on a Year of Loss in International Relations

A group of influential intellectuals—and personal friends—passed away in 2021.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A Greenpeace world map protests climate change.
A Greenpeace world map protests climate change.
A world map made with candles by members of Greenpeace is seen during a demonstration against climate change in Mexico City on Dec. 12, 2009. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

There are almost 8 billion people in the world, and I’m sure that for some of them, 2021 was a fabulous year. For the rest—even those of us who have been more fortunate than most—not so much. It has been an especially bleak year for the community of international relations scholars, whose ranks were diminished by the passing of four significant IR theorists. By “theorists,” I mean scholars whose primary intellectual contribution lay in devising novel explanations for important international phenomena, thereby providing us with new ways to think about and understand the infinitely complex world of international politics.

Although empirical work is an essential part of the collective effort to understand the world, theory remains the essential tool that helps us make sense of the dizzying avalanche of information that assails us daily. In their own unique ways, each of these scholars were first and foremost theorists of note. As it happens, all four were friends or colleagues of mine (or both), so I will begin 2022 with some reflections on those we’ve lost.

Nuno Monteiro

There are almost 8 billion people in the world, and I’m sure that for some of them, 2021 was a fabulous year. For the rest—even those of us who have been more fortunate than most—not so much. It has been an especially bleak year for the community of international relations scholars, whose ranks were diminished by the passing of four significant IR theorists. By “theorists,” I mean scholars whose primary intellectual contribution lay in devising novel explanations for important international phenomena, thereby providing us with new ways to think about and understand the infinitely complex world of international politics.

Although empirical work is an essential part of the collective effort to understand the world, theory remains the essential tool that helps us make sense of the dizzying avalanche of information that assails us daily. In their own unique ways, each of these scholars were first and foremost theorists of note. As it happens, all four were friends or colleagues of mine (or both), so I will begin 2022 with some reflections on those we’ve lost.

Nuno Monteiro

Sadly, the first loss was also the youngest. When he passed away in May at the age of 49, Nuno Monteiro was an associate professor of political science and former director of the International Security Studies program at Yale University. A native of Portugal, Nuno earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 2009. His dissertation and first book were a rigorous theoretical analysis of unipolarity, published in 2014. Proceeding from straightforward realist assumptions (like anarchy, rational states, desire to survive, etc.), Nuno identified the alternative strategies a unipolar power might pursue and the different ways major or minor powers will respond to each one. His analysis led him to conclude that unipolarity is more war-prone than other scholars had suggested, a position the past 25 years has borne out (unfortunately).

Nuno published his second book, Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Proliferation (co-written with Alexandre Debs) in 2016. It argues that states pursue nuclear weapons when they are threatened but only when they are also sufficiently protected so they can do without facing a preventive war. In other words, states pursue the bomb when they face a genuine external threat but only when they have a powerful ally who can shelter them from attack during the period of nuclear acquisition. This elegant theoretical argument is married to an impressive set of case studies, and the book is perhaps the best rationalist analysis of nuclear proliferation published to date.

Nuno also wrote or co-wrote a number of other articles, including a superb defense of the value of theory titled “IR and the False Promise of Philosophical Foundations.” But these scholarly achievements do not capture his extraordinary personal qualities: his warmth, charisma, dedication to helping others, and enthusiasm for the good life. You’ll get a sense of how special he was if you read the memorial wall posted by Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs or this lovely tribute from the Washington Post.

At the time of his death, Nuno was beginning work on a major study on “violence and political order.” Given his talents, I’ll always wonder what he would have had to say on this important and timely subject. And what a loss for the field.

John Ruggie

I have already shared my views on John Ruggie and won’t repeat myself here, but I do want to highlight his unusual combination of scholarly brilliance and real-world engagement. Rarely is the marriage of theory and practice as seamless as it was with John, and every student in our field should devote some serious time to ponder his major works. Unlike some scholars who return from the world of policy content to write their memoirs and publish the occasional op-ed, John was producing important academic scholarship right up to the end.

As with Nuno, even a lengthy summary of his professional achievements cannot capture his exceptional personal qualities: his sense of humor, lack of pretense, unshakeable integrity, and deep compassion for others. As I remarked at his memorial service at Harvard University, a young scholar beginning their career should above all be themselves, but if they can, they should also try to be like John. To get a sense of what I mean, read these lovely tributes by human rights advocates Caroline Rees and Mark Hodge.

Robert Jervis

Bob Jervis was, by any measure, a giant of modern international relations theory; he wrote more books and articles than I care to count—and virtually all of them display abundant creativity; piercing analytical powers; and an unmatched knowledge of diplomatic and military history, international relations scholarship, social and cognitive psychology, and a whole lot more. I sometimes think there were no important books in the field Bob hadn’t read, and I’m pretty sure every course I’ve ever taught had one or more of his articles on the syllabus. Why? Because they are that good.

The core of most of Bob’s work was trying to understand why states misunderstand one another so frequently and to figure out how they might be able to mitigate (though not eliminate) these tendencies through conscious policy choices. This enduring question inspired important studies on deterrence, the impact of the “offense-defense” balance on the probability of war, the potential contribution (and limitations) of “security regimes,” the sources of intelligence failures (and successes), the foibles of U.S. nuclear strategy, and a host of other topics.

Like Nuno and John, Bob was also genial, enthusiastically helpful, and a dedicated provider of collective goods. I had the privilege of serving as a co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs with Bob (and Robert Art, an international relations professor at Brandeis University) for more than 25 years, and much of what has made this an enjoyable experience was due to my two co-editors’ competence, judgment, integrity, and absence of ego. Through all this, Bob somehow found the time to serve as a government consultant, run symposia on H-Diplo, and take on important leadership positions at Columbia University.

Bob touched many lives with his teaching and writings, and detailed retrospectives on his life and work are already being prepared. But they will be no substitute to having him among us.

Robert Powell

And then in December came yet another blow, the untimely passing of another important international relations theorist: Robert Powell of the University of California, Berkeley. Bob received his doctorate in economics at Berkeley, and we overlapped there as graduate students when he was beginning to move from economics to international relations. Bob’s brilliance and intellectual fearlessness were readily apparent to us back then, and these qualities are evident in all his subsequent work.

Bob was a game theorist whose scholarship focused on the formal analysis of international conflict, and he developed a variety of sophisticated models to deepen, qualify, and elaborate on a number of familiar (but not always well-understood) issues in the field. In addition to a number of seminal articles and the book Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility, this research program culminated in his magnum opus: In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics. Bob’s work challenges some familiar theoretical nostrums while confirming others; he was especially adept at showing why certain widely accepted arguments are valid only under certain conditions, usually ones their original authors had failed to specify. If you’ve read economist Thomas Schelling, political scientist Kenneth Waltz, IR scholar John Mearsheimer, and others (and you should), you had better read Bob too.

Given my reservations about rational choice theory, you might think Bob and me would have been deeply at odds. Not so: If you read his own response to my criticisms, you’ll see the qualities that made him a great scholar and worthy intellectual opponent. He defends formal theory vigorously but not dogmatically, and unlike some of its other proponents, he never makes exaggerated claims or indulges in ad hominem attacks. Most importantly, he’s not a methodological imperialist, trying to convince you his approach is the “One True Way” to do political science. Indeed, as author Paul Poast shows in this fascinating thread, what made Bob so formidable was his appreciation of the virtues of formal methods, his skill at employing them, and his sensitivity to their limitations. He knew, as Schelling said before him, that it was a mistake to treat the subject of strategy as “just another branch of mathematics.”

There are, of course, many other noteworthy scholars who are no longer with us as we begin the new year. I have highlighted these four because I knew them well and because I learned much from their work and the example they set. I hope younger academics will see each of them as someone to emulate: You could do a hell of a lot worse.

I must close this rather mournful column on a personal note. In addition to losing all of these valued scholarly colleagues, my family and I began 2022 mourning the passing of my father, Martin Walt, at the age of 95. He was a tough act to follow: an accomplished nuclear and space physicist, a gifted athlete, decent musician, and serious amateur student of military and political history. Growing up, I was convinced there was nothing he couldn’t do well (except perhaps choose political parties). Rummaging around in his library as a kid got me interested in the subject of war, and his conviction that the greatest gift in life was to make your living doing something you loved has shaped most of my life choices. If you’d like to get a small sense of the man, take a look at the guest column he wrote for Foreign Policy back in 2011 at the tender age of 85.

Goodbye, Dad, and thanks again.

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

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