Kenneth Waltz: 1924-2013

Kenneth Waltz, one of the most prominent theorists of international relations of the post-war period, passed away earlier this week, aged 88. Waltz is known primarily for his contributions to the development of structural realism or neo-realism and for his publications of Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis in 1959, Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics in 1967, and Theory of International Politics in 1979.

Image courtesy of, in the public domain.
Image courtesy of, in the public domain.

Waltz obtained an undergraduate degree from Oberlin University and a Doctorate from Columbia University. He served in the United States Army during the Second World War and the Korean conflict. He later taught at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, Brandeis University, and the University of California, Berkeley, among others. In addition to this, Waltz was a research associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

Waltz, according to one of his doctoral students, Stephen Walt, was “someone with a razor-sharp ability to cut through a bloated argument and find the jugular”. This ability was essential in the development of his political thought, which principally revolved around the creation of a structural theory of international relations.

Before Waltz, many political scientists, including, for example, Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, believed that it was not possible to isolate international politics from its determining factors. National economy, national politics and international politics, they argued, were inherently inter-related and could not be separated from each other. Yet this, for Waltz, made “for endless argument and a lot of fun.”

In Theory of International Politics, he preceded to propose just such a theory, by focusing on the structure of the international system. This theory, broadly speaking, rested on two concepts, namely anarchy and power, and one assumption, namely that states are the most important actors in international relations.

Even though it entails the absence of formal law and order, anarchy is here not understood as chaos, but as the opposite of hierarchy. This follows from observation of the international system. In such a system, states are sovereign entities, independent from other states and supreme in their domestic affairs. The challenge they face is coexistence. Precisely because there is no higher governing authority above the state, each state has to rely on its own capabilities in order to survive. This is also referred to as “self-help”, the principal idea being that states cannot trust each other.

In this respect, capability is understood in terms of power. This is the second element in Waltz’ theory. Power determines outcomes in international relations, precisely because it is a domain that is difficult to separate from other domains. This is what makes competition in international relations more like oligopolistic, rather than perfect competition.

The outcome of international relations explained according to structural factors such as these is two-fold. The first was recognized by the classical realist and ancient Greek historian Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue cited in his History of the Peloponnesian War. “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” wrote Thucydides. Yet in the long term, and of greater structural significance, is that this structure perpetuates the anarchy of the international system.

Yet Waltz’ conception of international politics, albeit a powerful one, has merited many criticisms, with the inability of international relations theory to separate itself from other domains of politics being only one of them. Another major weakness of realist theory is its inability to foresee the end of the Cold War (albeit Kenneth Waltz did foresee that in his writing). What is more, many scholars of international relations contend that globalisation and the rise of non-state actors cannot be explained by realist theory.

According to Waltz, however, globalisation, as we experience it today, ought rather to be understood as Americanization and this in turn as the manifestation of American unipolarity. What is more, Waltz was never a theorist to confirm the prevailing paradigm.  According to Robert Jervis, “Almost everything he has written challenged the consensus that prevailed at the time”. Another instance of this was his publication of The Spread of Nuclear Weapons in 1981, in which he argued that “Countries that have nuclear weapons co-exist peacefully because each knows the other can do horrendous damage to it.”

What appears evident is that Waltz never shied away from challenging the established consensus. Paradoxically, the lasting legacy that he leaves behind is not only an established body of theory, but an unprecedented one and one that has persisted despite numerous critical assaults. For this, he deserved to be remembered. Furthermore, throughout his career as a theorist, he insisted, despite many arguments to the contrary, that theory and practice of international politics were inherently intertwined.

Most importantly though, throughout his career as a teacher, he encouraged his students to ask big questions and to learn not simply what other people thought, but to learn to think for themselves. And for this, he ought to be remembered in high esteem.

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