Harrison Wagner Retires

R. Harrison Wagner’s retirement brings toward conclusion a career that has repeatedly pushed the field of international relations to impose greater discipline, rigor, and care on the process by which it generates theoretical propositions about global politics. Along the way, his work has challenged conventional wisdoms on a broad range of topics, including the origins of the Cold War, balance of power theory, the significance of bipolarity during the Cold War, nuclear deterrence, the utility and limits of applying game theory to the study of international politics, the political significance of economic interdependence, and the impediments to cooperation posed by anarchy. Perhaps most importantly, Wagner, along with other leading figures in international relations, has played a critical role in reorienting the study of war in the field around bargaining theory.

Wagner earned his B.A. from Rice in 1958, a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford in 1960, and Ph.D. at Harvard in 1966. He was an instructor at Duke before coming to The University of Texas at Austin, where he has taught since 1966. He was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in 1989. He is the author of two books and multiple articles in journals including the “American Political Science Review,” “American Journal of Political Science,” “World Politics,” “International Organization,” “International Studies Quarterly,” the “Journal of Conflict Resolution,” the “Journal of Strategic Studies,” the “Journal of Theoretical Politics,” and “International Theory.”

Wagner’s unique intellectual and rhetorical style is readily apparent when scanning the body of his work. A core idea that emerges from this scholarship is that the fundamental strategic forces shaping international order are very similar to those that shape domestic order, and that to understand global order and change one must understand the forces that shape the self-enforcing equilibrium of the day. Viewed through this lens, international and domestic politics are intertwined in an overlapping set of implicit “contracts” shaping how leaders interact with each other, how society interacts with the state, and how those with the capacity to use force, most notably the military, interact with other actors to form and influence political life.

His most recent book, “War and the State: the Theory of International Politics” (2007), represents a culmination of much of his research and stands out as the magnum opus of a distinguished career that has spanned over four decades. While identifying the theoretical insufficiency of the broader paradigm debate that has gripped the field of international relations for decades, this book pushes political scientists to rethink the virtues of a strict intellectual separation between the fields of international relations and comparative politics by casting the fundamental challenges associated with building stable political orders—often associated with such institutions as the state and the state system—as inseparable from the problem of war. The book will surely be a classic. Read for many years in graduate seminars and beyond, it will continually press scholars of international relations to rethink and revise some of their most central assumptions and propositions generated in the last 30 years.

——— From Terrence Chapman and Patrick McDonald, 23 March 2011