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In Memoriam: Bruce Russett

Russett helped the world understand the democratic peace.

Bruce Russett, the Dean Acheson Research Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Yale University, passed away last week. He had an outsized influence on international relations scholarship, most notably for his contributions to understanding the democratic peace – the proposition that democracies tend not to fight each other, and (under some conditions, he would be the first to note) are more peaceful in general. He was also a mentor to legions of students and fellow scholars over many decades. 

We asked a group of scholars to contribute remembrances, and we invite others to leave their own memories or links to other obituaries in the comments section at the end of this piece. There are also tributes from the International Studies Association and the Yale Department of Political Science.

I will start with my own recollections. Bruce Russett served as the chair of my PhD committee, and he was always kind and supportive of my work even though it was very different from his own. His influence on how to develop and test theories in the messy empirical world of international politics stayed with me long after I completed my dissertation, and can be seen throughout the work of the many different types of scholars he mentored.

Russett was most famous for his scholarship on the democratic peace, but he was uncomfortable with how the George W. Bush administration used the DP, as Russett often called it, as a post hoc justification for the Iraq War. In his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush said that “because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.” 

Russett’s response was to point out in an article that DP scholars had long stated that forcible regime change was not the way to forge international peace, and that the record of democratization by force was dismal (a finding confirmed by subsequent scholarship).

Russett was sometimes a quiet observer but when he felt strongly about something, he made his voice heard. The title of Russett’s Iraq War article? Bushwhacking the Democratic Peace.

Bruce Russett’s career is one that will reverberate for a long time through not only his many scholarly works on a wide range of topics, but also his leadership and mentorship in the community of international relations scholars. So many of us will miss his kind and wise counsel, and visiting his office, with its comfortable red leather couch.

Harvey Starr, Dag Hammarskjöld Professor in International Affairs Emeritus, University of South Carolina

I first met Bruce Russett at Yale over 50 years ago – as a 21-year-old first-year political science graduate student in 1967. I have acknowledged many times the enormous role that Bruce played in my career path, my development as a scholar, and as a role model of how to be a professional – most importantly how to treat others with kindness and generosity. He has been a mentor, colleague, co-author and especially a friend, not only to me but to so many who have known and worked with him.

He produced pioneering work on methodology, data collection, and the application of economics to the field of international relations – especially in the area of analytical relationships between theory, policy, and normative standards for morality and ethics. His work has clarified and furthered our understanding of peace studies by looking at power and conflict, cooperation, integration and community, the democratic/Kantian peace, economic development, dependency, and inequality, and the relationships between domestic and foreign politics. Through his training of students, his service to professional associations such as ISA, Peace Science, and APSA Conflict Processes, and especially his stewardship of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, which he edited from 1973 to 2009, he has influenced almost every corner of international relations scholarship. He will be missed, but his scholarly legacy will endure.

Daniela Donno, associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma

Bruce Russett is so well known for his work on the liberal peace that it is easy to overlook the breadth of his impact on the field of international relations. His research, spanning decades, extends outward from the liberal peace, branch by branch, into such a range of areas: deterrence, hegemony, terrorism, military spending, the United Nations, the public health costs of civil war. Bruce simply loved research. He loved reading, debating, and exploring new ideas. His physical countenance was slight, but his presence was gigantic.

The most meaningful lesson that Bruce imparted to me as a mentor was to be curious, bold, and unafraid to step outside of my comfort zone. My first co-authored project with him, on women’s empowerment in the Muslim world, emerged after his reading of another article left him with perplexing questions that needed answers. Despite the fact that neither of us were experts in the subject matter (and that I had all the insecurities of a second-year graduate student), Bruce showed me that we could explore new angles on this sensitive topic with care and respect. In the twenty years since this collaboration, the study of women’s rights in authoritarian regimes has continued to be a defining element of my research agenda. What an unexpected gift.

My last meeting with Bruce was at APSA in 2017. Despite the hardship of his wife’s recent passing, Bruce’s face lit up as he told me about his regular visits to the Yale center for emeritus professors, where he had an office and many interesting conversation partners. The Yale community was truly his home. He will be fondly remembered by the many colleagues and students that he inspired.

Paul Huth, professor of government & politics, University of Maryland; editor, Journal of Conflict Resolution

My fondest memories of Bruce were centered on our collaborations as co-authors on a series of papers very early in my academic career. Bruce, of course, was prolific in his writing and so it was a bit daunting to co-author with him as a junior scholar, but Bruce treated me as an equal from the outset. I remember detailed and lengthy discussions on substantive points while sitting on the large red leather sofa in his office. The give and take was extensive with each of us conceding on some points while insisting on others. The respect he showed for my input and ideas in those meetings bolstered my confidence. Following one of these meetings, I went home and wrote a full draft of a paper over the weekend and shared it with Bruce on Monday. I will always remember the conversation with Bruce after he received the paper. When he asked whether I had written this up over the weekend and I said yes, he said he was really impressed by that. Having a prolific scholar like Bruce tell me that he was impressed by how much I had written up in a couple of days made me feel so proud. I was walking on cloud nine. 

[Editors’ note: the paper became Huth and Russett, “Testing Deterrence Theory: Rigor Makes a Difference,” World Politics 42,4 (1990): 466-501.]

Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, professor, Department of Political Science and College of Law, University of Iowa

I first met Bruce Russett as a graduate student at a Peace Science Society conference in the early 1990s. He was very welcoming to junior scholars in the society and expressed genuine interest in our research. As editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution (JCR) for more than 30 years, Bruce had a lasting impact on conflict studies. 

One thing that struck me as a junior scholar was that he not only read each paper submitted to JCR, but he also talked with the authors of those submissions at conferences, no matter the outcome of the review process. Bruce’s work on deterrence and the liberal peace influenced how many IR scholars study interstate conflict and he was a pioneer in the use of dyad-year analyses to move beyond systemic and monadic analyses. Bruce’s 1993 APSR article with Zeev Maoz on the democratic peace was crucial in my development as a scholar and helped me see both structural (institutional) and normative aspects of the liberal peace. My dissertation on the systemic democratic peace, focused on the endogenous and dynamic relationship between war and democracy, was different from many dyadic analyses at the time, but Bruce recognized my contributions and helped me publish in JCR despite skeptical reviews. Bruce also supported my career by writing a tenure letter. I last saw him at a reception for APSA’s Conflict Processes section and, like always, we discussed our shared research interests. I continue to learn from and teach many of the path-breaking ideas in his research program and I am grateful for his support.

Photo courtesy of Yale University.