A last dance with Kenneth Waltz
By Sreeram Chaulia
The death on May 12 of one of the father figures of the
theory of international relations (IR), Professor Kenneth
Waltz, resonated with every academician who follows world
politics. The founder of a dominant school of thought known
as neorealism, Waltz, who died aged 88 from complications
with pneumonia, was essential reading for generations of
students and teachers who aimed to get an analytical handle
over the arcana of foreign affairs.
Everyone read Waltz to make sense of confusing forms of
behavior and explain outcomes of the complex interactions
that comprised world politics. Every debate and discussion
began with him, meaning that Waltz was a reference point
that could not be ignored by anyone who wished to call
themselves an IR specialist.
Another distinguished social scientist, Stanley Hoffmann,
wrote in 1977 that the discipline of international relations
was "an American social science", implying that its
theoretical moorings and development were indisputably the
handiwork of American academics after World War II.
Waltz was among this elite group, although he did not belong
to the founding cohort of talented Jewish emigres who
escaped Nazi persecution to America and became the pioneers
of IR theory as we know it, viz John Herz and Hans
Morgenthau. Being younger than these early advocates of
classical realism, Waltz took over the baton and remade IR
with some stunningly original postulates.
If the Cold War in the real world was personified in
diplomacy by cold-blooded American practitioners such as
John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger, the crown for Mr
Cold War in academia was undoubtedly Waltz's. His core
concept of international anarchy, where there is no global
government to restrain or shape the actions of states,
seemed to fit the animalistic terrain of the bipolar Cold
War where two major superpowers threw around their weight,
used the foulest of means and techniques, and tried to gain
relative influence over each other.
In the absence of moral limits on superpower interventionism
and skullduggery, Waltz's neo-Hobbesian depiction of an
international order that is nasty, brutish and short
appeared to be absolutely accurate and unblinkered reality
(hence the popularity of the term "realism").
Although precepts about states acting selfishly with the
intent of maximizing their own security and power at the
cost of rival states were not new, Waltz packaged this
hyper-competitive theoretical construct within a systemic
He made the art of realpolitik a science and tried to show
that the paranoia and expansionist tendencies of great
powers was less about the nature of being of states (as
Morgenthau had preferred) and more about the nature of the
system in which they operated. A quintessential
structuralist, Waltz's appeal to many mainstream IR scholars
was and remains his scientific method of extrapolating from
the makeup of the system and then positing how the units
(that is, states) would interact.
Until the 1970s, Waltz was at the peak of his career as the
guru of IR who had to be cited and quoted by every scholar
in American academia as well as globally. But the thaw in
relations between the United States and the Soviet Union,
known as detente, and the phenomenal increase in traction of
economic diplomacy began to dent Waltzian neorealism's place
as the dominant paradigm. He had written Man, the State
and War in 1959 and Theory of International Politics
20 years later.
The first significant challenge came from Robert Keohane's "neoliberal
institutionalism", which accepted some basic premises of
neorealism, but portrayed a world where cooperation and
economic interdependence were perfectly rational choices for
states. To the IR neoliberals (not to be confused with the
much-derided neoliberalism of economics), instead of being
daggers drawn at each other and ready for an ever-present
danger of war, the great powers that mattered, and even
smaller powers, could engage in mutually beneficial
exchanges via multilateral institutions and international
Morgenthau and Waltz had made the world look naturally
conflictual and war-prone, and there was an excess of
militarism at the heart of neorealism. But as the Cold War
wore off, such a Hobbesian visage of a perpetual state of
war appeared jarring and strangely unrealistic. If Waltzians
had set out to explain why states were always quarreling or
forming alliances against other groups of states, the
neoliberal institutionalists began to ask why states were
actually trading and investing in each other and even
resolving bilateral or multilateral problems through win-win
Waltz and his legions of disciples hung on to their vision
and spiritedly defended themselves in the post-Cold War era
by predicting the return of great power animosities and
counterbalancing tendencies. But they sounded passe because
of the astonishing rate at which economic globalization had
remade the so-called anarchic world order.
Markets and multinational corporations broke down the
statist structure of the international system and introduced
ideas like a "borderless world" and free movement of goods,
services and capital without the hindrance of state control.
As defense budgets fell in the 1990s and diplomatic missions
around the world metamorphosed almost entirely into
facilitators of trade and commerce for their companies, the
"absolute gains of interaction" model of neoliberal
institutionalists appeared to have triumphed over the old
orthodoxy of zero-sum-game Waltzian neorealism.
Waltz continued to insist that states, and only states,
still mattered as the main actors that could cause outcomes
in world affairs. But it was a hard sell in the context of
the rise of mega corporations and financial megaliths like
Goldman Sachs, which seemed to be running the American state
rather than the other way around.
Central to the shift of guard away from neorealism has been
the relationship between China and the United States in
recent times. Are they undermining each other or growing
together? The presence of a dualistic trend of
conflict-cum-cooperation among major powers, where economic
exchanges acquired a life of their own and often drove the
overall bilateral relations, drilled holes into the
Not even the return to the "global war on terrorism" in the
new millennium could turn back the clock towards Waltzian
neorealism. Al Qaeda-like actors were not proxies of a
single state entity but were still shaping the agenda of
The addition of these violent non-state actors to the
multinational corporations made Waltz's insistence on states
as the central drivers of world politics outdated. Other
systemic theories like Samuel Huntington's "civilizational
clash" (which gives primacy to cultural blocs rather than
nation-states), "neo-Marxism" (which had a good claim to
explain economic globalization) as well as ideologically
diffused, methods-driven academic movements like
"constructivism" ate into the first-among-equals position of
By the time of his death, amidst the onset of a multipolar
world undergoing a profound capitalist crisis, Waltz's camp
was no longer the preeminent IR tent where scholars had to
find a foot inside or be outcast. The rise of emerging
economies has intensified the search for coherent and
parsimonious non-Western IR theories.
In Asia, the investments made into alternative IR theories
by Japan and China stand out as harbingers of the future. In
India, strategic elites often talk about a distinct Indian
form of discourse and thought on global affairs, a heritage
that has been utterly neglected but one that will inevitably
come to the fore as India attempts to become a major power
and influence international behavior.
If the global economy and world politics are set to be
dominated by non-Western states and non-state actors, then
surely the academic discipline of IR will also follow suit.
Looking back at Waltz's illustrious career, it is obvious
that his visions and arguments were reflective of the power
realities of the post-World War II period. If the sociology
of knowledge in the academic discipline of IR is any guide,
then something fresh and non-Western will eventually arise
to shake up the "American social science" and transform it.
Theory is an abstraction based on observation of common
patterns of actual behavior. Whether Waltz will fade away
even more or make a posthumous comeback depends on how
foreign relations evolve in the future. For the weak and the
vulnerable nations and peoples of the world, neorealism had
often loomed like a curse, because it decreed that big
powers could naturally bully them without any legal limits
or moral compunctions.
But when the formerly weak societies become strong, as is
the case with the emerging economies set today, will they
emulate their erstwhile masters and embark on a repetition
of big power browbeating of smaller states?
Is Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei's concept of a "civilizational
state", which would behave differently from the Eurocentric
nation state, accurate? Is the Indian Gandhian precept of
power and wealth as attributes of custodianship that can be
utilized to uplift the moral and social realm likely to
return as a principle to govern international intercourses?
Is the African principle of "Ubuntu" and shared humanity
waiting for a global debut as a new model of international
and inter-social relations?
Waltz was not exactly an apologist for American hegemony or
a justifier of great power freedom to trample over the
downtrodden. Neorealists ironically saw themselves as
liberators who had the best policy mix of solutions for the
weak to resist the strong through alliances and military
self-reliance. Waltz's championing of the idea of a "nuclear
peace", wherein countries like Iran and North Korea should
be permitted to have the atomic bomb in order to stabilize
their respective regions, did give the weak weapons to
defend themselves against perpetual interference and
invasions of the great powers.
Yet, while Waltz provided options to the disadvantaged,
these tools were still steeped in militaristic modes. The
neorealist maxim of "prepare for war if you want peace"
became a self-fulfilling prophecy and a dangerous idea,
which was internalized by many jingoistic and
ultra-nationalistic state elites, much to the detriment of
The most fatal flaw of Waltzian logic - underestimation of
domestic politics and an obsession with inter-state war and
stability - set back human welfare and social stability.
Waltz never saw people as active makers of history with
aspirations, struggling within every nation-state for
dignity. The ultimate peddler of "system-level" theories was
so blinded by the structures at the top that he missed the
human elements that constitute the world.
Theoreticians to come will continue to waltz with Kenneth
Waltz, but in a selective manner. In empirical instances
where Waltzian predictions still seem applicable, they will
be credited. Where the world moves in fresh directions,
Waltz's gems will be left behind as relics of an historic
American era of IR.
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and Dean at the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.
His latest book, Politics of the Global Economic Crisis:
Regulation, Responsibility and Radicalism, is due out
from Routledge Publications shortly.
(Copyright 2013 Sreeram Chaulia.)
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