Interview with Thierry Balzacq, Professor

Date : 
Thierry Balzacq CERI Sciences Po

Thierry Balzacq joined CERI Sciences Po in January 2019 as Professor. He specializes in IR Theory, security, and diplomatic studies, among other research interests and has recently started a new class at Sciences Po on grand strategy.  We are interested in knowing more about him and his research interests.

Can you tell us about your academic background?

I hold a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge. The thesis examined the contribution of pragmatism to our understanding and study of security. Before my PhD, I was enrolled in two separate faculties (i.e., Political Science and Philosophy) at the University of Louvain, where I completed two BA and two MPhil, respectively in 1999 and 2000. In 2003, I received a Fellowship from the Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF) to undertake postdoctoral studies at Harvard, to work on strategic culture. I became a member of Ian Johnson’s seminar on new approaches to security. I almost stayed in the US, but family reasons brought me back to Europe. As a French person who had never studied in France, it proved rather difficult to find a place in France on my return. My first job was in Brussels, at the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), in 2005. The same year, I was appointed at the Jesuit University of Namur, where I learnt to appreciate the import of strengthening your teaching abilities. In 2016, I received a Francqui Research Chair (the highest academic title awarded in Belgium) for my research on security and International Relations.


What is your take on academia?

I see academics as contemporary nomads. I truly learn by travelling. The different contacts with foreign environments are important, for they not only enable me to revise my ideas and progress intellectually. In addition, visits to foreign universities are occasions for intensive cultural transactions. I am very passionate about understanding how students acquire knowledge in different contexts and how my colleagues conduct teaching and mobilize pedagogical innovations to advance learning.

I also follow very closely how higher education evolves worldwide. For me, higher education is a new terrain for global competition. Countries that fail to appreciate this will be disqualified, with massive economic, cultural and political consequences. I have held various appointments at foreign universities, including at the London School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Edinburgh, McGill, Aberystwyth, National University of Singapore, and the Australian National University.

Finally, I am convinced that there needs to be a constant conversation between researchers and policy-makers, without compromising the intellectual integrity of academics. I have worked for the French Ministry of defence (2014-2016), but also acted as leader of a team of experts (European Parliament) or as expert to the European Commission. I advised the Australian Department of Home Affairs on strategic planning in 2018.


And in terms of your research, what have you worked on more specifically?

During my master studies, the question of security discourse and its ambivalent relation to social order piqued my interest. This work was progressively carried out within the framework of securitization theory. In this field, I worked along three axes.

First, I have tried to develop a new approach that proposes a more sociological understanding of security, combining the study of discourses, practices, and security tools. In part, this view is original in the way it bridges traditional and critical understandings of security, which allows me to dialog with scholars from various schools of thought, including realism, constructivism and postructuralism. I defend a problem-based approach to research, which means that theories are means, not straitjackets or ideological bastions.

Second, because I was a little uncomfortable with some a priori criticisms against security, which did not lay out the criteria they employed for assessing security policies, I investigated the conditions under which security policies become legitimate. The empirical studies I conducted showed that any social order derived from security policies was characterized by a specific relation with social trust, the rule of law, and individual empowerment. I demonstrated that these three elements were used by people—though often separately—as indicators to gauge the degree of legitimacy of a social order produced by security policies. Depending upon the answer, they would then adopt different strategies to contest the social order.

Third, I designed a new framework for analysing security, which insisted upon the added value of triangulating methods. At the time, this was a radical departure from many critical approaches that worked almost exclusively with discourse analysis or ethnographic approaches. My training in humanities and social sciences also mean that my research routinely crosses boundaries. Actually, I do not work within a discipline. I try to tackle problems, using different fields of knowledge (what people would call “disciplines”). What I really find hard is to devote my entire attention to one topic exclusively. I have therefore always navigated various subjects in parallel. For me, this is a very effective cure against boredom. I always have two or three projects ongoing, moving from one to another depending on my readings, and the pace at which my thought process on the subject goes. While this approach can sometimes be demanding and means that some projects take longer than I initially foresaw, I’ve been lucky enough to often cross-fertilize these projects. Hence, while I was working on securitization and critical approaches to security broadly, I also conducted research on EU border policies, including police cooperation and the European neighbourhood policy. I have published pieces on NATO and EU defence cooperation (e.g., strategic culture, trust in security cooperation, etc.), Actor-Network theory and cyber-security, ethics of warfare, and risk and security governance.


What are your current research interests? Are you moving toward new themes?

I have been working on grand strategy for the last 5 years. My project is to try to renew how grand strategy has been studied heretofore, by using a comparative and inductive approach to the topic. With Simon Reich (Rutgers) and Peter Dombrowski (US Naval War College), we have set up the Global Initiative on Comparative Grand Strategy (GICGS), which has allowed us to examine a wider number of cases than the three of us could have handled alone, and derive a robust framework for analysis that we hope others can use and, even better, develop further. A volume we co-edited titled Comparative Grand Strategy: A Framework and Cases (Oxford University Press) will be published next July. I am also working with Ron Krebs on the Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy and co-authoring a book with Simon Reich provisionally titled Reinventing Grand Strategy. I have dwelled on this strand of research to propose a course on grand strategy here at Sciences Po (the first one, to my knowledge).

For a nation to develop and implement a grand strategy, society needs to understand and accept as legitimate the goals, ways, and means selected by the state. That is, grand strategy intersects with social cohesion. Yet, while working on domestic foundations of grand strategy, it occurred to me that this requirement was a tall order for increasingly fragmented societies. Assertions that Western societies, for example, are polarized stroke me as intuitive feelings, with thin empirical evidence. They required serious consideration. Using a Foucauldian method of not taking issues head-on, I decided to address the problem by displacing it, hoping that it will eventually lead me to the original puzzle. And, for my purpose, the question therefore became: How can a nation develop and pursue a collective project (grand strategy being, for me, the highest type of collective enterprise) under such circumstances? Is there a link—causal or other—between fragmentations within nations and international disruptions? Thanks in part to discussions with many colleagues and friends, these questions have now culminated into a new project. What I am currently trying to study, is how states manage to bridge differences, when the system is polarized. One of the books I am working on therefore examines how states craft compromises within polarized settings, both within and without. Here, too, my research clearly intersects with my teaching interests, as I am designing a new course on Pluralism and World Ordering. This is not a teaching module devoted to cultural diversity as it happens these days when people talk about pluralism, though this is of course part of the teaching. The course’s scope is far broader, examining issues ranging from epistemological pluralism and relativism (i.e. the question of multiple “truths”), to legal pluralism, and their consequences on social order, at different levels. The course draws on and integrates different fields of knowledge, including anthropology, political theory, sociology, comparative politics, international Relations, and Law. I can’t wait to start.


Are you part of collective projects within CERI and beyond? Can you tell us about them?

Yes. I have just joined a research group that is being created on “Multilateralism”. Frédéric Ramel is instrumental in pushing this forward. The aim, broadly put, is to produce an enhanced form of multilateralism. In principle, my input should be on injecting a normative twist to the project. I am very excited about this project, not only because it meets my new topic of research, but also because it will allow me to interact much more regularly with Sciences Po colleagues and researchers coming from other French universities on a matter that I consider urgent for world politics. The depth and breadth of expertise available in situ makes Sciences Po a natural home for a project of such magnitude. The project includes a strong international component, too, as we will invite foreign colleagues whose expertise complements ours to join. This project really meets one of Sciences Po’s traditional concerns, namely, how to articulate different research fields in order to develop innovative and open knowledge on major problems of our times.


Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI