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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Government Professor William Wohlforth

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

William Wohlforth1.jpgWilliam C. Wohlforth is the Daniel Webster Professor in Government and an expert in the field of international relations. In particular, Wohlforth’s research focuses on what every Risk-playing kid’s dreams are made of — issues of grand strategy and realism, the latter of which is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a “view of international politics that stresses its competitive and conflictual side.”

After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in International Relations from Beloit College in 1982, Wohlforth continued his study of politics at Yale, from which he earned a Ph.D. with distinction in 1989. He then went on to Princeton, where he taught until 1996, and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he was Assistant Professor from 1998-2000. Dartmouth nabbed him from the Hoyas at that point, and Wohlforth has been roaming the hallways and classrooms of Silsby ever since, including as Chair of the Government Department between 2006 and 2009.

In light of the myriad questions that recent political developments have raised about the future of the current international order, it is difficult to imagine a more relevant body of research within the field of political science than Wohlforth’s. Specifically, he has comprehensively examined the place of the United States in a changing world that contains, among other possible threats to American power, an assertive Russia and an ascendant China. Wohlforth’s scholarship, which is expansive (an h-index of 31 and over 5700 individual citations according to Google Scholar) is perhaps reason for optimism: Wohlforth has argued, most notably in his and Stephen Brooks’ 2008 book World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy, that the United States should not necessarily be expected to lose its position as the most powerful nation in the world, even though conventional wisdom among international relations scholars says otherwise.

In fact, Wohlforth has himself advocated for “deep engagement” on the part of the United States in the realm of international affairs (in contrast to our newly-inaugurated President). This is a rejoinder to the view, held by many academics, that America should adopt a policy of so-called “retrenchment” and reduce its role on the global stage. Along with his fellow faculty member Brooks, Wohlforth spells out his argument in the recently-published book America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century. Deep engagement, they explain, is not only the best way to ensure security; additionally, this type of foreign policy allows the United States to shape the globalized realms of economics and international institutions in ways that advance its own national interest. Retrenchment, on the other hand, is a short-sighted philosophy that both ignores non-security objectives and over-estimates the costs of maintaining a vigorously active role in international affairs.

As a Russia expert, Wohlforth has published a great deal about the Cold War, including the authorship of one book on the topic and editing duties for two others. There was a certain prescience present in his work in this area, as is proven by the conclusion to a 1995 article in which Wohlforth defends the viability of realist theory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you’ve turned on a television or opened a newspaper at some point in the past couple of years, this may well be an eerie read:

This leads to the frankly inductive warning for the West: keep a weather eye on Russia. Russia has often experienced rapid shifts in relative power with dire international consequences. In this century alone, Russia’s sudden decline after the 1905 war with Japan and its equally sudden rise in the years before 1914 were important preconditions for World War I; its apparent weakness conditioned the disastrous diplomacy of the 1930s; its sudden rise in apparent power as a result of World War II set the Cold War in motion; its perceived forward surge in the late 1950s and early 1960s set the stage for the dangerous crises of that era; and its apparent sudden decline in the late 1980s was the catalyst for the greatest upheaval in international relationships in half a century. Russia may be down now, but prudent policymakers should not count it out.

Of course, Wohlforth is kept busy in the classroom as well. He teaches at all three levels of the Government Department’s course structure — introductory, intermediate, and seminar. His Govt. 5 course, Introduction to International Politics, often provides the first exposure that freshmen have to the study of political science, and his seminar on Russian foreign policy is on the bucket list of many a Government major.

For a direct sense of Professor Wohlforth, listen to him speak about Shifting from a Unipolar to a Multipolar World? at Johns Hopkins:

Addendum: In the fall of 2012, I was one of the freshmen enrolled in Professor Wohlforth’s Introduction to International Politics course. The experience ended up being one of the reasons I decided to pursue study in the Government Department. Wohlforth is a powerful and thoughtful lecturer, and I remember his excellent ability to cultivate active class discussions. I can personally attest to the fact that he is devoted to Dartmouth as an institution, and he is, perhaps most importantly of all, an all-around good guy.


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