Kenneth Waltz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Theory and International Politics: Conversation with Kenneth N. Waltz, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; February 10, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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A Theory of International Politics

Let's talk about your first book, Man, the State, and War. There, the problem was what?

The problem was very simple. For me, political theory was my major, and you had to have a second field. I chose international politics because, having worked in international economics, it gave me some kind of a start. But I was keeping it to a minimum.

There was a professor at Columbia at the time who was accustomed to making deals with people who are only minors in the field, that you could cover certain things and leave others aside. We worked it out: I would study European diplomatic history, imperialism, and so on. I would not do international law and organization, which I never found attractive. And then he got sick, so he could not appear for the oral exams of people who were minors.

The alternative was William T.R. Fox. So I went to see him and I explained the arrangement that I had made. He said he had never heard of any such arrangement. So he called up the departmental secretary, who knew everybody and everything that was going on in the department, and she said, "Yes, Professor Peffer did customarily make such arrangements with minor students." And I can still remember this. Bill Fox, as I came to call him later, hung up, turned his chair toward me and said, "Nevertheless, if you're going to do international politics, you're going to do international politics." I had no choice.

I had completed my reading in the minor field, I thought, and was going to spend the remaining few weeks on my major interest, political theory. And instead, I spent those few weeks reading as widely as possible, with my wife's help. She was getting books out of the library for me in the field of international politics, generally. I could not make head or tail of it. It was a most confusing literature.

Finally it came to me. I still have somewhere the little piece of paper on which I wrote this down. book coverThe reason these people are confusing is because they're thinking in different causal terms. Some are thinking that the causes of what goes on in international relations are rooted in human beings, what human beings are like. And others are saying the causes are found in states. That good states don't fight wars, because they are democratic; bad states fight wars. And then the definition of good and bad varies; for a Marxist, it's a socialist state that is the good state. For a liberal, a good state is democratic. So everything is rooted in what states are like.

And then there's the third way of looking at it, that it's at the international, political level that the causes are found, and although the causes do operate at those two other levels, they operate in this context, and the context is extremely important.

So, in summary, you labeled each a different image. So image number one looks to the causes of war in the nature of man.

Right.

Image number two looks at the causes of war in the nature of the state, whether it's a democracy or authoritarian, or whatever.

An authoritarian government, dictatorship, or whatever; right.

But the third realm looks at international politics as a separate political domain.

Exactly.

So, hence, an opening to begin looking for a theory.

That's right. I remember people, specifically a professor at Oberlin, George Lanyi, saying to me, "What's going to be the sequel to Man, the State and War?" And I said, "I don't have an idea about how I could write a sequel." From 1959 until the late sixties, I didn't have any sequel in mind. And then I began to think -- I don't know why these things develop in one's mind; who knows? -- I began to think of a way of asking myself, at least, the question of how might a theory of international politics be possible? And that's when I began to read more widely in anthropology and very widely in the philosophy of science. I finally developed the notion. It took a period of years to develop a notion and fill it out, figure out ways of presenting it effectively and so on, and that is what one finds in the book Theory of International Politics.

We'll talk about that in a minute. But I can't resist asking you something about Man, the State, and War, because it appears, superficially, that in one sense you're rejecting the first two images out of hand. But as I was rereading it, I saw things differently and I just want to be clear about this. You're saying in Man, the State, and War that the underlying cause of war is the third image, whereas the first two images are immediate causes.

Right.

So there is a continuing interplay between them, even though, really, the thrust of the analysis is for the third image.

Exactly right.

Okay. We can come back to those images in a minute when we're talking about American policy.

You mentioned that you set about to create a theory of international politics. What did you conclude? Help us understand by talking a little about your theory. What is the nature of this realm of international politics?

The structure of the international political system is defined first by its organizing principle, which is anarchy. book coverSome people would think of that as a disorganizing principle, but it's a principle that tells one how the major units of the realm relate to one another. The relation is one of anarchy, as opposed to hierarchy. It's not an ordered realm. It's not a law-bound realm. It's an anarchic realm in which the various units have to figure out for themselves how they're going to try to live with one another, and how they're going to pursue, specifically, and manage, ultimately, their own security worries. It is described as a realm of self-help: if you don't do it for yourself, you cannot count on anybody else doing it for you. They may help; they may not. You don't know. You can't count on that. You're on your own.

The second defining principle is by the distribution of capability among those units, with the more capable ones, of course, shaping the realm, posing the problems that the others have to deal with. The analogy there, of course, is between international politics on the one hand and ologopolistic sectors of an economy on the other hand. It's not a purely competitive realm. It's one in which the major actors, those of greater capability, set the scene in which the others must act.

Now, in layman's terms, in the first part of your analysis, what you're saying is, "There's no international police force. There's no real international court. Therefore, these things can't be adjudicated." That's really what you mean when you're trying to help us understand the organizing principles. States have to act on their own.

Right.

They have to do it for themselves.

The second part is that the key comes from understanding the capability one actor has vis-à-vis the others.

Right.

So what, then, helps us understand the outcomes in a particular situation in the world? Are these the things we have to look at to understand what's going on in the world?

Right. The first one, anarchy, remains. Unless, somehow, a world government is ever developed, international politics will be an anarchic realm. So that's an invariable. It doesn't vary, if you want to use those terms. The second part of the definition is where one finds the variation; that is, we've known worlds historically and, of course, we can also imagine them in the pure realm of theory, in which there are varying numbers of great powers.

Always, until World War II in modern history, there were five or so great powers contending. World War II eventuated in a world in which there were only two: the United States and the Soviet Union. States acting in those two different worlds face different kinds of problems. It's interesting to recall the reflections, as it were, made in the arguments that were conducted shortly after World War II. That is, the difficulty, for example, that previous great powers -- countries like Great Britain and France -- had coming to terms with the fact that they were no longer great powers, that they were reduced to the level of major powers. The reduction directly affected their behavior. They had to adjust to a different kind of world that made a different kind of policy and different kinds of actions, appropriate or inappropriate. To use an old-fashioned terminology, they became not providers of their own security, but consumers of security provided by others.

Now, a simple distinction like that explains a lot. It explains how Europe could develop as a somewhat distinct political realm. France no longer had to worry about a possible war with Germany, or, as it had in previous times, a possible war against Britain. We worried about that, and the Soviet Union worried about that. And there wasn't much they (France, Germany, Britain) could do about it. They could make marginal differences in the system, but they could not provide for their own security vis-?-vis the Soviet Union. They had to rely on an outside power, because the capability shifted so much in that way.

Whole new kinds of behavior become possible for the previous great powers, because they're no longer great powers, just for that simple reason. And the United States assumed new responsibilities that it never dreamed of assuming. In the 1930s, to tell an American that America would begin to take the responsibility for the security of major parts of the world would have been laughable. Nobody could even imagine such a condition. But when the structure of international politics dramatically changed, we accommodated ourselves to that new condition.

Next page: The Idea of Structure in International Relations Theory

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