Ken Waltz: The Kindly Realist

Steve Saideman on Kenneth Waltz, the most influential scholar of international relations of the past 50 years.
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May 14, 2013
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This weekend, Kenneth Waltz passed away.  He was, bar none, the most influential scholar of international relations of the past 50 years.  I have no doubt that nearly every writer on IR who has contributed to OpenCanada has read not one but both of Waltz’s books: Man, The State, and War and Theory of International Politics.  So much of what we now think of as common sense can be traced back to these books. 

The former instructe­d us to think seriously about how the level of analysis we choose to use to understand something greatly shapes what we see and what we do not see.  For instance, I am currently writing a book on what we can learn about Canada from how its political system handled being at war in Afghanistan.  Using Waltz’s three levels of analysis, I would learn completely different lessons: Should I focus on Rick Hillier’s personality?  The challenges of minority government?  Or the place of Canada in the world?  To be clear, in Man, the State and War, Waltz essentially games the debate, favouring the level that had been most ignored – that of the international system.  Instead of focusing on personality or domestic institutions, he would focus more on the structure of the international system and the position of countries within it.  This is a very useful reminder, as much of the Canadian debate – with a few award-winning exceptions – ignores how the imperatives of being a relatively small country critically constrain choices.  After all, Canada, despite the mythology, was not alone in Afghanistan – every country that was similar to it in terms of power and institutions did pretty much the same thing.

The latter book, Theory of International Politics, continues to play a crucial role in how we think about international politics.  Every scholar of IR is either consciously and explicitly or unconsciously and implicitly reacting to it.  While Waltz was leaning on an approach, Realism, that goes back as far as Machiavelli and beyond, he made a tremendous contribution by rooting the logic of Realism in the nature of the international system.  Because there is no central authority in international politics (the World Court can be ignored, the United Nations does not have its own capacity to coerce, and so on), countries have to rely on themselves, and this self-reliance will inevitably lead to suspicion.  Any effort to single-handedly improve one’s own security will threaten the security of other countries, and they will respond in kind.  This security dilemma is not Waltz’s innovation, but the clarity of his arguments and his applications made it so clear to me that I stopped studying the politics of arms races in graduate school.  I felt that Waltz had largely answered my question.    

Although many have long lamented the divide between scholars and policy-makers, Waltz, in addition to influencing policy-makers via being required reading for their classes in undergrad and beyond, always engaged in major policy debates, often by taking controversial stances.  He was outspoken as an early opponent of the Vietnam War, reminding us that Realism is not about the application of force but the judicious deployment of power.  Since 1980, Waltz served as a confounding advocate of the spread of nuclear weapons.  He saw the spread as being inevitable, due to the security dilemma, but also that deterrence could foster peace.  I regularly used the latest version of this argument to challenge my Intro to IR classes.

I only met him once, at a dinner a couple of years ago when he visited Montreal for a talk at Concordia (I think).  All I remember was that he was very kind and very engaged.  The testimonies of his former students indicate that he was very tough but also very fair.  He must have been a great mentor, as the list of his students is a very impressive one, including many who continue to shape the field today.

While Man, the State and War is now more than 50 years old, it is still a mighty good read for not just scholars of IR.  Readers of the International Journal and those who follow our stuff at OpenCanada would benefit from reading this book. It is not only useful for providing distinct lenses to see IR, but also a great shortcut for understanding how the great political theorists of all time have thought about international politics.  Theory of International Politics is a bit more advanced and social science-y, so it is probably not for summer beach reading.  Still, it is far more readable than nearly all contemporary IR scholarship, so I would recommend it.  It is a thin book with powerful implications.  It certainly changed how I viewed international relations.

Ken Waltz will be missed, but the good news is that his books will carry his influence for generations to come.