Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt: Global Development

Editor’s Note: Stephen Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University.

Professor Walt is the author of The Origins of Alliances (1987), which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award. He is also the author of Revolution and War (1996), Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007).

You can read his full bio from herehere and here. For reading his blog on international relation, foreign policy and global affairs please click here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Stephen Walt recently to gain insights about his ideas, research and works in the field of Global Development which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Stephen, thank you so much for joining us. We are honored and thrilled to have you at eTalks.

Stephen: My pleasure.

Niaz: You are a realist in an ideological age. You have been a leader in the field of International Affairs. You have done a significant amount of research and added gigantic amount of knowledge in this field.

As you know, by this time, we have developed superb technologies, published millions of great books and developed a lot as human beings. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us, how far have we progressed?

Stephen: From one perspective, human progress is remarkable. In the past 500 years, we have identified many of the basic laws of the physical universe, discovered the principles of evolution and genetic inheritance, eliminated many diseases, and lifted millions of people out of poverty.  And along the way humans have created a vast and diverse array of music, literature, and art. Yet these same creative impulses have also been used to create powerful technologies of destruction and various harmful ideologies. Human progress remains a decidedly uneven phenomenon.

Niaz: What are the lacking, scope and opportunity to progress?

Stephen: By developing language, humans became able to record and communicate their discoveries and to work together to create new realities and possibilities. That capacity remains the greatest source of human potential: our collective ability to work together to achieve common ends.

Niaz: Despite all of the progresses we have, why countries keep fighting each other?

Stephen: At the most basic level, conflict between nations arises from a combination of fear, greed, and stupidity. Humans are social beings, and we are hard-wired to establish group identities and loyalties. Once formed, social groups tend to worry about what other groups may do to them, and this basic insecurity drives competition that sometimes leads to war. That’s fear.  States also fight because individual leaders have dreams of glory, or because they seek wealth through conquest and plunder. That’s greed. And finally, wars occur because leaders are fallible; they often misperceive or miscalculate. In particular, they convince themselves that victory will be swift and easy and then discover too late they were mistaken. That’s stupidity. Unfortunately, humankind remains all too prone to all three tendencies.

Niaz: Why do countries fail to build and sustain international relations? Can you please explain us the reasons? 

Stephen: In fact, countries form all sorts of valuable international connections. Global trade and investment has grown steadily, allowing millions to live more comfortably. Previously war-torn regions such as Europe have now known decades of peace. Information now flows all around the world at very low cost. Global institutions like the World Trade Organization or the United Nations have not eliminated global conflict, but they have helped keep international rivalries within bounds.

Yet there are still limits to what global institutions can accomplish. In particular, they cannot keep the most powerful countries from acting as they wish and from competing with each other for advantage. Nor can prevent some individuals and groups from using violence to advance their own political agendas.

Niaz: What do you think about the core problems of building sustainable international relations?

Stephen: I believe the core problem for the next century will be managing the development and rising power of Asia, and grappling with the political and social effects of environmental change. These two challenges will make many of our current concerns seem trivial by comparison.

Niaz: How can countries overcome those challenges?

Stephen: I believe the key to more effective global cooperation lies primarily in encouraging more honest and open global discourse. When countries are guided by myths, self-serving national narratives, and inaccurate information about political and natural phenomena, then clashes and errors are inevitable. By contrast, when humans are able to confront shared problems honestly and openly, they can identify where they disagree and are more likely to develop solutions that work. But it is still a fragile process.

Niaz: Is there any net gain from wars?

Stephen: In some cases, yes. States are sometimes able to improve their position via warfare, or at least can prevent others from gaining an advantage. But “rolling the iron dice of war” is always risky, because no one can be 100 percent sure how things will turn out. For example, it was clear in 2002 that the United States would not have much trouble defeating Saddam Hussein’s army, but the occupation of Iraq quickly turned into a costly quagmire and the final result is far from what the Bush administration intended. Because warfare is always an uncertain enterprise, wise leaders will go to war only when forced to fight.

Niaz: Can you imagine a world without any war? If yes! How can we build that world?

Stephen: I can. For one thing, as my Harvard colleague Steven Pinker has recently shown, the overall level of human violence has been declining fairly steadily for quite some time. Furthermore, I believe nuclear weapons are a powerful deterrent to great power wars, and it is these sorts of wars that cause the greatest human suffering. Lastly, I believe that our species has the capacity to learn, and this capacity can help us avoid some of the circumstances that have fueled war in the past. But none of these measures makes war impossible, which is why we need to remain vigilant against its occurrence.

Niaz: What are the responsibilities of developed countries to restrain them from war?  

Stephen: Because developed countries have the most military capability, they have the responsibility of not using it to oppress others. Sometimes developed countries can use force to deter or halt aggression, which is a good thing. But other times they use their superior power to coerce others, or they wage low-level conflicts that kill innocent people to no good purpose.

Niaz: As a global citizen what are our responsibilities for stop killing each others?

Stephen: I think the first step is for global citizens to try to inform themselves about events, and not to trust just what their own governments and media are telling them. A second step is to develop empathy, by trying to imagine how international problems look to others. We don’t have to agree with those whose interests may be different, but we should try to figure out how they see things, and why.  

Niaz: As you know, there are millions of NGOs and social organizations who work for removing poverty, protecting our environment and so on. But what happens in reality? Business Organizations do the harm. Chinese version of capitalism doesn’t work. Governments are corrupted. And NGOs form for doing good. NGOs keep taking donations from business organizations to survive. Overall, this is a strong circle which continues for hundreds of years. Where do our core problems reside actually?

Stephen: I think we need to be very careful here. There are many NGOs and business organizations who do wonderful work in a number of areas. At the same time, there are other organizations whose activities are actively harmful. What we need most is greater transparency: the more we know about what different organizations are actually doing, and the more we know about who is paying for these activities, the easier it is to judge whether they are a positive or negative force.

Niaz: Do you think we can remover poverty by these poverty removal activities?  Why or Why not?

Stephen: Yes, but the record here is mixed. On the plus side, economic development in countries like China and India have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and similar miracles have occurred in a few other places. But on the negative side, the gap between the richest countries and the poorest has actually grown over the past 100 years. When you combine this level of inequality with global communications you have a recipe for trouble, because people in the poorest countries or the poorest sectors can see how the wealthy people are living.

Niaz: What are your ideas to remove poverty and to make life better to contribute in this mother earth for making it a better place?

Stephen: I’m not an expert on economic development, but I think there are several obvious answers here. First, the only way to eliminate poverty is to increase productivity. Second, increasing productivity requires increasing educational levels, and bringing women into the work force in large numbers. It also rests on eliminating barriers to investment and trade, while at the same time creating a legal and regulatory environment that discourages corruption and prevents excessive concentrations of political power in the hands of the wealthy. But none of this is easy or automatic, and when you add it all up, you can see why sustained economic growth is so difficult to achieve.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Stephen: Only this: it is tempting to look for radical solutions, in the belief that some bold stroke will suddenly solve all our problems.   But I think history shows that grand schemes that are supposed to produce some magical solution rarely work, and often cause great misery. Human progress is due to more to patient, steady, trial-and-error efforts, and not from idealistic visions.

Niaz: Dear Stephen thanks again for your invaluable time. We are really enlightened with your ideas, knowledge and experience. We wish you good luck for all of our endeavors. Take very good care of yourself.

Stephen: You are welcome Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. F. M. Scherer on Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

4. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

5. Joseph Nye on Global Politics

6. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation