Great IR Thinkers: Kenneth Waltz

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Man, the State and War: an IR classic. Image:

“Since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”


In June of 2009, the journal International Relations devoted an entire issue (in two parts) to a man it described as “The King of Thought.” The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the publication of Theory of International Politics and the 50th anniversary of Man, the State and War. As Ken Booth wrote in the issue’s introductory essay: “…the justification for a project to celebrate and re-examine these classic books needs little elaboration.  Nor is the stature of their author in any doubt, as is testified by the following recent endorsements by leading figures in the field: ‘Kenneth Waltz is the most important international relations theorist of the past half century’ (John J Mearsheimer); ‘Kenneth Waltz is the pre-eminent international relations theorist of the post-World War II era’ (Stephen M Walt); and ‘Kenneth N Waltz is the pre-eminent theorist of international politics of his generation’ (Robert O Keohane).”  “Intellectually speaking,”  Booth continues, “we are all Waltz’s subjects, whether we be loyal disciples, friendly critics, or rebellious opponents: the discipline defines itself in relation to the authority of his work.”

The Three Images

“Where are the major causes of war to be found?”  This is the age-old question that animates the series of essays in political theory that Kenneth Waltz published in 1959 under the title Man, the State and War.  Famously, Waltz’s answer begins with the ‘three images’: a typology of the three kinds of answers others have given to the question.  While ‘first image’ theorists — such as Niebuhr, or Morgenthau — argue that war results primarily from individual human behavior; and  ‘second image’ theorists — such as Kant — point to the internal structure of states; ‘third image’ theories focus on the structure of the international ‘environment.’

Perhaps Waltz’s primary concern in Man, the State and War is to identify himself as a ‘third image’ theorist.  For Waltz, malign human nature can explain individual wars but not the recurrence and persistence of war over time.  Authoritarian and militaristic states certainly cause wars, but it is far from clear that peace-loving, democratic states prevent them.  The major causes of war, therefore, must lie elsewhere — in the structure of the international system.  While the efficient, or immediate, cause of a specific war may be attributable to human nature, or to the character (or absence) of domestic political institutions, the permissive, or underlying, cause of all wars is the absence in the international system of anything to prevent them.  Thus begins what has come to be known in International Relations as the ‘anarchy problematique.’

For an excellent current assessment of Man, the State and War,  Hidemi Suganami’s 2009 article is a good place to start.   Also of interest is Jean Elshtain’s article, “Woman, the State and War,” which asks how gender as a category of analysis would alter the book’s arguments and conclusions.

Structural Realism

If Man, the State and War was an exploratory work of political philosophy, Waltz’s most important work, Theory of International Politics, is far more systematic. And it was Theory of International Politics that gave birth to ‘structural realism’ (or, as its critics initially took to calling it, ‘neo-realism’).

Since Waltz believes that the international environment is the underlying cause of war, his theoretical focus is the structure of the “international-political system.” “The ordering principle” of this system, Waltz writes, “is anarchy.”  Unlike hierarchical systems, characterized by authority and functional specialization, units in anarchic systems are not functionally differentiated and their basic condition is one of “self-help.”  If the international-political system is anarchic, then (as Waltz claims), the behavior of states in the system will be very similar to the behavior of firms in a market. Just as every firm has an essentially identical interest in profit above all else, every state, on this view, has an essentially identical interest in survival above all else.

Across centuries and latitudes, therefore, as the leaders, cultures, and internal structure of states change, their international behavior is disciplined by this existential concern. At the macro, systemic level — as opposed to the micro, foreign policy level —  this results in a concern with the relative distribution of ‘power’ in the system, which can be usefully described in terms of  its ‘polarity’.   This, then, brings us up to Waltz’s argument that bi-polar systems (in which there are only two major powers) are the most stable,  and to the the falsification question begged ( as discussed in last week’s feature) by the unexpected end of the Cold War.

Given Waltz’s pre-eminence in the discipline, much of this is the story that every IR student knows — whether they like it or not. But, as many have recently argued, there may be much more to it.  In his 2009 article, “Waltz’s Theory of Theory”, Ole Wæver draws attention to how consistently Waltz has been mis-interpreted, particularly by self-described Waltzians.  The main problem, Wæver argues, is that most Waltzians employ a methodology based in empiricism — the idea that truth claims can be objectively verified, or checked against, the ‘real’ world — something which Waltz warns against on many occasions and at considerable length.  As Waltz is generally keen to stress, his theory of international politics was never intended as an empirical description of the world.  Instead, Wæver argues, Waltz’s view of the role of theory is closer to Wittgenstein’s view, of theory as an analytic device — a “picture, mentally formed,” in his words, that necessarily misrepresents and distorts the world in order to better understand it.

If Waever is right, anyone looking to Waltz for testable propositions about such quotidian matters as whether and when states bandwagon or balance is probably looking in the wrong place.  For many people, this would be an irony indeed, after more than thirty years of doing exactly that.

For more on Waltz and his work, refer to these other Waltz-related resources:

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