Kenneth Waltz: 1924-2013
Image Credit: University of California, Berkeley (Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies)

Kenneth Waltz: 1924-2013


On Sunday evening, Dr. Kenneth Waltz passed away at the age of 88. Waltz is best known for his books Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics. The first book set the terms on which researchers would approach the study of international relations, dividing theories between first image (individuals and human nature), second image (regime type, such as communist or democratic), and third image (systemic effects). Waltz himself preferred the third; Theory of International Politics formed the basis of Waltz’ answer to what he believed was the most important question of international relations: “Why do balances recur?” His answer: states in anarchy, whether communist, capitalist, or monarchist, sought security, and most readily found that security through balancing behavior. 

Waltz hardly believed that states and individuals didn’t matter, as he regularly engaged in policy recommendation. Rather, he believed that systemic factors, largely beyond the reach of states and statesmen, explained the most important international phenomena. In part because of his belief in the robustness of balancing tendencies, Waltz had little patience with what he regarded as unnecessary military interventions. The United States would not lose the Cold War because it lost Vietnam; rather, we would expect that other states in the neighborhood would balance against Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese power, and even that the three communist states would balance against one another. The developing relationship between Washington and Hanoi, based on concerns about China, vindicates this belief. Similarly, Waltz warned against America’s pointless war in Iraq.

Later in his career, Dr. Waltz’ work focused on the promise of nuclear proliferation to bring “peace in the post-war world.” Waltz argued that the costs of nuclear war were too great for a pair of nuclear-capable antagonists to fight one another to the bitter end. Consequently, limited proliferation could help ensure peace between historic antagonists. Unsurprisingly, these arguments were welcomed in states with nuclear potential, such as India. Waltz wasn’t afraid of applying this argument to Iran, arguing that nuclear capability would make Iran both more secure and more careful about its international behavior.

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The relevance of Waltz’ work to contemporary East Asian politics is obvious, and can in some ways be seen through U.S. regional policy. The growth of Chinese power will threaten China’s neighbors; these neighbors will seek to balance against China, either through internal (increased defense spending) or external (alliance building) means. The specifics of conflicts like the Senkaku and Spratly island disputes aren’t irrelevant, but they must be understood in context of this broader framework. The long-term ability of states like Japan and South Korea to remain non-nuclear also stands in some question.

But we need not accept the implications of Waltz’ arguments as gospel truth.  Any framework of analysis necessarily excludes some variables, or else it is of no utility. Study of the “gaps” between Waltz’ images, such as transnational contacts, non-governmental organizations, and international norms, has been enormously profitable from a research standpoint. Changes in states, and in the way people interact within and between them, may indeed transform the nature of structural anarchy such that the future will differ from the past.

Kenneth Waltz’ influence lives on directly through his students, the roster of whom reads like an A-list of international relations theory. In many ways the study of IR has grown beyond the bounds that Waltz set, but he remains the critical starting point for virtually everyone who dedicates themselves to the academic pursuit of international relations. Dr. Waltz’ contribution was immeasurable, and his presence will surely be missed.

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