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Kenneth Waltz – The Physiocrat of International Politics

16 November 2012

Kenneth Waltz Part 1

Kenneth Neal Waltz
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Kenneth Neal Waltz

In today's "Theory Talks", Kenneth Waltz looks beyond the economic foundations of international politics to consider the importance of nuclear weapons in the contemporary world. He also wonders whether the United States is behaving in ways realist international relations theorists would predict.

Prepared by: Peer Schouten for Theory Talks

What is, according to you, the central challenge or principal debate in International Relations? And what is your position regarding this challenge/in this debate?

For me, the central question is how to contain and moderate the use of military force by the United States. This is certainly not the only big issue but it is one of the big issues. The United States has been—not unexpectedly—a very war-like country ever since it became a world-dominant power. As Alexander Hamilton said, a country disposing of dominant power cannot be expected to behave with moderation, and the United States certainly bears that out. Historically, it is hard to think of a country disposing of dominant power that did behave moderately for any large period of time. The United States fits neatly into the category of dominant powers that have not behaved moderately.

There is only one way that a country can reliably deter a dominant power, and that is by developing its own nuclear force. When president Bush identified the countries that he said constituted an “axis of evil”—namely, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—and then proceeded to invade one of them—namely, Iraq—that was certainly a lesson quickly learned by both Iran and North Korea. That is to say, that if a country wants to deter the United States it has to equip itself with nuclear force. I think we all have seen that demonstrated very clearly.

How did you arrive at where you currently are in your thinking about IR?

Well, I suppose Hans Morgenthau in the modern period has been more widely influential than any other single author. And I was influenced by him, surely, as most people were.

Regarding important events, I think the most powerful shaping event occurred in August 1945 with the dropping of two atomic bombs. That was a world decisive event. The impact the bombing of Japan had on my thought about international politics was pervasive. Even though it was a world transforming event, I am not sure if that is now fully appreciated, although we act in accordance with the world- transforming effects—“transforming” meaning that everything changes, and all truths become false, all beliefs become irrelevant, and axioms that we used to lived by are turned on their heads. All those things are implied in a world-transforming event, if we use the word “transforming” in its true meaning. There are so many illustrations of that that it boggles the mind.

Just to think of a few, it has always been very difficult to fight limited wars, historically speaking. That is, one can start and try to fight a limited war, but it is hard to continue to observe the limits. All this, in a conventional world… In a nuclear world, you can only fight limited wars, since it is impossible to fight all-out wars. When we talk about “nuclear wars” we are using words very loosely. As Desmond Ball, a considerable expert on nuclear weapons, and an Australian commentator, said: “it’s impossible to fight a nuclear war after nuclear warheads numbered in the tens have gone off, nobody will be knowing what’s happening. And if no one knows what’s happening, then you cannot fight a nuclear war.” The ‘fog of war’ that Clausewitz referred to is nothing at all compared to the fog of war that would ensue even if only a few nuclear warheads were exploded.

So if you can only fight nuclear wars, and if it is very difficult to keep wars limited, because they tend to escalate, the question becomes: why fight wars at all? And, again, countries with nuclear weapons would behave according to that thought. If you do not have nuclear weapons, you can fight wars just as in the old days. But once a country has nuclear weapons, these weapons strongly deter other states. In fact, one cannot make “never-statements” when thinking historically, but one can with nuclear weapons. Never, in 65-plus years, have countries having nuclear weapons or enjoying their protection, fought each other. That is an astonishing statement, and it is true. So in sum, my work, in a way, has been an attempt to theoretically deal with the implications of the invention and application of nuclear weapons.

An alternative adage to the Kantian one, that Liberal states do not go to war?

Historically, all kinds of states have gone to war. Whether they were democratic or authoritarian, they have all fought wars, and the great powers especially—wars we all know, like the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, wars like World War I and World War II, wars “to end all wars” but that in fact never ended conventional war.

Now, with the invention of nuclear weapons, countries that possess them or enjoy their protection have never fought one another. The implication would be that, if you love peace, you should love nuclear weapons. I do not think that this fact is well appreciated because not many people seem to love nuclear weapons; but they have been awfully good for the world. It is rather anomalous that some people—like for example president Obama—look forward to the abolition of the weapons that have, in fact, abolished war.

What would a student need to become a specialist in IR or understand the world in a global way?

I think one obvious prerequisite is high intelligence, and also a good sense of history. Without knowing what has happened in the world in the past it is very hard to understand the present. I think that in the study of international politics it is especially important to be aware of why wars have occurred, how they have developed, what has caused countries to fight bloodier wars, less bloody wars… One has to contemplate these things and all kinds of other things in order to understand the international politics of the past, and to be able to understand the difference between conditions that have promoted war in the past and those that work against the fighting of wars in the present. So I would say that first, a good sense of history is required. So I would certainly advise reading the classics. My idea of the classics is, I think, most people’s idea of the classics. I do not want to be accused of forgetting the names, but it all began with Thucydides—at least in the Western world—and proceeded with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and later, of course, Morgenthau. It is a pretty impressive literature. It is very important for students of international politics to read, and read carefully, those old warhorses. They stood the test of time and they are certainly among the books most worth reading carefully.

There are other pivotal issues, as well, that a student should pay close attention to, like the role of technology and its importance in warfare, the relevance of economic capabilities, the importance of leaders of all sorts, and the conditions under which deterrence will—and will not—work.

And does the same go for theorizing, or does that require a different set of skills?

As I put it at the beginning of Theory of International Politics, theory is a picture of the world that one is concerned with—but it’s not the whole world. For example, in the world of international politics, as in our case, one has to develop a mental picture of that world and then identify the major variables at work and the principal connections among them. That is something that is both difficult to do and rarely done.

There isn’t much theorizing going on in international politics. And the word “theory” is so loosely used that people begin to think that anything that is not directly empirical or factual must be theory, and that is certainly a misconception. To develop a theory is difficult, and all the more difficult if one defines theory as it should be defined. For example, as Einstein said, there is no inductive route that leads to theory. That is, simply knowing more and more, having more facts at one’s command, does not lead one to the ability to develop theories. That is something that many students of international politics have not understood. As J. David Singer put it, “we”—that is the people who were working on the dimensions of war approach to understanding warfare—“decided to go very far down the inductive route before we try to develop theory,” as though more and more induction would somehow get you closer to theory. And that is exactly the opposite of what Einstein saw and understood, that is, there is no inductive route to theory.

In 1979 you published perhaps the most cited handbook of International Relations Theory, Theory of International Politics. How has the state of IR theory changed since the publication of Theory of International Politics?

Well, as I said, there is almost no theory written or developed. It is very rare to find real theories in any field, and certainly it is very difficult to find them in the study of international politics. So only by a very loose use of the word “theory” can one say that there is any development or advance in the realm of theory. And one shouldn’t expect it. I mean, theory is a pretty rare thing and one seldom finds it in the social sciences, outside perhaps of economics. I would say that one of the great social science theorists was Durkheim, and once one recognizes this, one gets the sense of how rare it is to find theories of society or, as in our case, theories of international politics. But one would expect that: theories don’t grow on bushes.

So in sum, in IR as in any field, one expects theory to be scarce. So most of the work done is empirical work; one hopes it is informed by theory, but often it is not. Most people don’t have a real sense of what theory requires or might look like. It is difficult for a lot of people to grasp theory. And that accounts for a lot of the problems among theories of international politics.

If you were to write the book again, now that bipolarity has come to an end, what changes—if any—would you make to it?

I certainly would add something about unipolarity. I wrote about multipolar systems and bipolar systems, that is, structural changes that produce changes in behavior. I identified these two different kinds of structure. And it did not occur to me that we would move from bipolarity to unipolarity, which of course we did with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In any kind of balancing system, the major players have to continue to exist as major players for the system to remain unchanged. You cannot have a bipolar balance without two parties being the participants in that balance. So, as soon as the Soviet Union disappeared as a great power, the bipolar balance collapsed, just as the multipolar system of balance collapsed with the fighting of World War II, and the emergence from that war of two—and only two—great powers. The balancing takes place within a structure; when the structure changes, the type of balancing, or whether or not there is any balancing, is directly affected or determined, in fact. So I would have written, or added a chapter, on what a unipolar world might be like, and what the advantages and disadvantages of such a world were likely to be. I have written quite a bit about the implications of the dominance of the United States, so though it is not in the form of a chapter, I think I have written a good deal about that.

How do you respond to critics who say that if Theory of International Politics is right, then IR cannot undergo meaningful change, and that the belief that such change is impossible is a major impediment to making a better world?

I certainly believe that, as long as the world continues to be anarchic, the theory that I developed will maintain its direct relevance. One cannot expect the world to change unless the structure of the world changes. That is, structure affects behavior directly, and as long as the world remains as it is—anarchic—that is going to condition the behavior of the states that exist within that world. Although not directly, the behavior is strongly influenced or shaped by the structural condition within which the behavior takes place. So, one will not expect profound changes in behavior, or important changes in behavior, until—and unless—the structure changes. As long as the world is anarchic, it perpetuates certain kinds of behavior by the major players within the anarchic arena.

Why do you think Theory of International Politics became such a lightning-rod for criticism?

That is one of the things good theories do, they attract a lot of criticism. It’s not surprising and I am not surprised by it. Of course, a lot of the criticisms are made by people who fail to deal with theory as theory, and rather deal with some of the other things I said, many of which I see as following from the theory, but many people don’t think that way. I have never been bothered by the criticisms at all. I expect theories to be criticized, and they should be. I wish the criticisms were even more telling than they have been, but that is beyond my power of influence.

One of the most original and enduring contributions of Theory of International Politics is the concept of “structure,” conceptualized as a “positional picture” that abstracts from “every attribute of states except their capabilities.” The three definitional components of structure are (1) ordering principles, (2) the character of the units, and (3) the distribution of capabilities (Chapter 4). In your response to Robert O Keohane’s critique in Neorealism and its Critics (1986), you contrast structural theory with “the behavioral mode of thinking.” Can you please explain how these ways of thinking about world politics are different? And what advantages you see in the structural approach?

I think one can see it very clearly, very easily and very directly if one contrasts Hans Morgenthau’s work with Theory of International Politics. Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations was a great contribution; it was the major book on the first half of the twentieth century in the field of international politics. I have great respect for it. But Hans Morgenthau, in his search for what he sometimes called a “rational theory,” was able to deal only with how the acting units affected the outcomes produced. In other words, his approach to international politics was in the mainstream of political science in its day, in the sense that it inferred from the acting units what the outcomes would be. There was nothing but the acting units to shape those outcomes. In other words, there was no concept of a structure of international politics because he had no concept of the structure of international politics. That is, he only saw the behavior and the interacting units, and did not see them within some kind of a structure, so the outcomes inferred had to depend directly on the qualities of the actors. And that is where we got these typical statements that “good states produce good outcomes,” or “democracy produces peace.” That is inferring from the quality of the actors what the outcomes will be, and those are the only causal conceptions within the theory that Morgenthau developed. There can be no cause other than the causes that are found in the principal actors.

Now the advantage of the structural approach is that one sees the effect of the environment—precisely defined—on the acting units and how this precisely defined environment affects the outcomes we are concerned with, so that one gets away from the kind of causal thinking that Durkheim satirized when he gave such examples as the question: why did the Greeks produce all of that immensely impressive philosophy? And the answer typically given is that the Greeks were a very philosophic people. Or why did the Germans produce all of that magnificent music? Well, the answer given is that the Germans were a very musical people! In other words, the cause is found in the acting or behaving units. That is entirely behavioral! Structural thinking breaks away from that. It is a very difficult jump to make for a lot of people; very difficult. As Henry Kissinger said, “moderate and legitimate states produce moderate and legitimate systems of international politics.” That is exactly the kind of thinking Emile Durkheim was satirizing.

Given the fact that Liberal theories are often associated with an economic view of the world, in which way does your background in economics influence your perspective and the way you theorize in international politics?

I think it is a very direct and important influence. Economists, especially classical and neoclassical, have a very keen sense of how the structure affects behaviors and outcomes. Economists call it “the market.” And the market is the structure—in my terms—in which the units are acting and behaving, and producing what seems to be their outcomes. But their outcomes are very much conditioned by the structure—in this case the market—in which the behavior occurs. So, the market shapes the behavior and shapes the outcomes. One can understand this very easily in economics, but it is harder to understand it in politics, because in politics, there was no clear conception of a structure. Morgenthau, in his groping for what he called a “rational theory of international relations,” was not able to come up with that notion because he could not see anything beyond the behaving units.

Another pivotal influence from economics on my understanding of international politics is the competition among a large number of roughly equal units, which can be contrasted to the behavior of firms in oligopolistic settings. Those are the direct counterparts of states in international politics, for if you have a world of many great powers you will expect different kinds of behaviors and outcomes than what you would find in a world where there are only two competitors. Or whether there is no competitor at all and there is just one! That would be a monopoly, of course. So the analogy between economics and international politics is very interesting. When the conditions in international politics approximate the conditions in economic theory in important ways, then the analogy holds; if they don’t, it doesn’t. (Continue with part 2)

Editor's note:

This article was originally published as Theory Talks #40 on 3 June 2011


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