Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Legacy of Kenneth Waltz: How he changed International Relations


Kenneth Waltz made critical contributions to the development of international relations theory, the debate on U.S. foreign and security policy, and the training of a new generation of international relations scholars. In the course of these contributions he has also served as a model of clarity of expression and logical argument. 

Waltz's first critical contribution to international relations theory was his elucidation of the "levels of analysis" problem in Man, the State, and War. The categorization of explanatory theories into ones that respectively stress the role of human nature; state-level political, economic, and social systems; or the anarchical condition of international politics has proven a critical building block of modern international relations theory. 

Through his exploration of theories at different levels of analysis, Waltz took the first giant step of his theoretical career. Even readers who do not wish to take the same step find the path illuminating. Waltz poses two major questions: If bad humans are the cause of war, why is there so much peace? If bad states (or societies, or economies) are the cause of war, why are so many good states implicated in wars? Why does war persist despite variation in the nature of the states and societies that make up the international system? Waltz suspected that classical realism and balance of power theory would tell us something about this -- but at that point he could not quite put his finger on it. 

The device of "levels of analysis" has become a ready element of our vocabulary about international relations theories. It travels well. Even novices quickly grasp its utility, and find themselves better able to organize both their own and others' arguments after a brief introduction. More importantly, Man, the State, and War makes the case that there must be something distinctly "international" about international politics, which Waltz suspected could be traced to the absence of a sovereign. The book maps out a space that subsequent theorists, including Waltz, would then need to fill. After we read the book, we know this. Some may disagree with Waltz's subsequent arguments about the share of international politics that can be explained by "third image" -- or system-level -- theories, but none can dismiss them. 

Waltz's second contribution to international relations theory is to be found in Theory of International Politics. There, Waltz distills the product of years of thinking about the "third image." He develops the distinctive concept of "international structure" as the distinguishing feature of the international political system. Structure is the minimalist device that captures the basic causal forces and variables of the international political system. Structure is made up of an organizing principle (anarchy) and the distribution of capabilities (polarity). From that, Waltz deduces many of the characteristic patterns of behavior one should find in the relations among autonomous actors. Though Waltz overlooked certain possibilities, such as unipolarity, and left much room for argument about some of his specific deductions, one cannot come away from Theory without a keen appreciation of the constraints and incentives imposed upon states by the condition of anarchy. These lead to the competitive behaviors that are so familiar. 

Kenneth Waltz was one of the most influential international relations scholars of the last half-century. Even if he had produced no students, his books would stand as rocks in the road. Nobody trying to understand international politics can avoid them. But Kenneth Waltz did produce many students, who built on his work in their own scholarship, further refining the realist model. Even international relations theories based on other premises must engage with structural realism. Kenneth Waltz found what was international about international politics and built the foundations of the field.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Man, State and War: Thank you Kenneth Waltz, now Rest in Peace

As a student of International Relations and an aspiring theorist of the discipline, the news of the passing of Kenneth Waltz is sad. This guru embodied the neo-realist theory throughout his great academic history. Ken was the author of several enduring classics of the field, including Man, the State, and War (1959), Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (1967),  and Theory of International Politics (1979).   His 1980 Adelphi Paper on nuclear proliferation ("The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better"), was also a classic, albeit a controversial one. 

Kenneth Waltz
As a first year student at the university studying International Relations, Ken's works came in handy. We dissected and unpacked various theories of IR. Theorist such as Hans Morgenthau, the father of realism were introduced to us with the monumental piece of "Politics Among Nations". Others such as E.H Carr, Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli also epitomized the realist discourse. The epistemology and ontological points of departure came in handy when unpacking the theory debate. This being said, Kenneth Waltz remains my all time favorite theorist in International Politics. I have read his book "Man, State and War" and it together with the monumental seminal work on foreign policy of "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis by Graham T Allison remain as my all time favorite reads in international relations. 
 
In essence, Waltz's thesis in the book "Man, State and War" is on the causes of war in a contextual framework of the man and society. Using units of analysis, Kenneth Waltz divides international relations theory into three images: that of man, state and system. He looks at the three images vis-a-vis each other and forms his theoretical premise of the causes of war. Interesting in this reading was his analysis of man within a polity or society. He asks "Can man be best understood by studying society or by studying man?" His analysis is premised on the conception that man is born good but it is society that erodes their character. 
 
Writing recently on nuclear deterrence in Iran and the politics of the bomb, Kenneth Waltz reminded us of his unique analytical skills.  In Foreign Affairs magazine, Professor Kenneth N. Waltz says it is time to back off and let Ahmadinejad develop his nuclear weapons. I wrote in this blog before on Waltz's perspective. He believed that a nuclear Iran will bring stability in the Middle East region. Just the standoff between India and Pakistan that cooled down through nuclear deterrence, Waltz believed Iran-Israel tensions could be healed this way. 
 
I eulogize Kenneth Waltz's on his excellent and critical formulation of IR theories and events. I have never met his in person but through his great works. He introduced me to the discipline that is International Relations. We debated and argued on the images as conceived by Waltz in class both at undergraduate and graduate studies. My analytical skills within the corpus of IR have largely been influenced by this great scholar. In scholarship, one is acclaimed and despised in equal measure but for me, Waltz remains one of my great mentors.