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21 Sep 2021

Stephen M. Walt, columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University

In Memory of John G. Ruggie: Tribute by Stephen M. Walt

"A Realist Tribute to an Extraordinary Idealist", 21 Sep 2021

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...

Had John done nothing but write these various works, his reputation as a major figure in the field would be secure. But there was a second dimension to his life and career, and in certain respects it was even more impressive. After serving as director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and as dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, John was appointed assistant secretary-general for strategic planning at the United Nations from 1997 to 2001. In that role he was the intellectual architect of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Global Compact, the world’s largest global corporate citizenship initiative, and a key figure in the formation of the Millennium Development Goals and the reform efforts that earned the U.N. and Annan the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. John always gave Annan the main credit for these achievements and downplayed his own role, but it was not hard to discern his influence on these endeavors.

Ruggie came to the Kennedy School in 2001 and directed its Center for Business and Government from 2002 to 2006. But there was yet another chapter to be written in his life: In 2005, he accepted Annan’s invitation to serve as special representative of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the relationship between business and human rights. Working with a variety of nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and other groups, John and his team eventually produced a set of “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” that were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council (successor to the original commission) in 2011...

John was a man of firm convictions and deeply held principles. He knew his own worth and did not lack confidence, but he was also witty, self-deprecating, and more comfortable sharing credit than seizing the spotlight. Our theoretical outlooks were sharply different, but our interactions over the years were unfailingly enjoyable and never failed to make me think again. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have him as a teacher, colleague, and friend for many years, and his untimely passing has already sent a shock wave through the international relations community. To say that he will be greatly missed is an extraordinary understatement, but John Ruggie was an extraordinary man.