Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

A Realist Tribute to an Extraordinary Idealist

| Sep. 21, 2021

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

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“A Realist Tribute to an Extraordinary Idealist.” Foreign Policy, September 21, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt