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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The Idea of Structure in International Relations Theory

Why is it so hard in our perceptions of the world, and even [among] your political science colleagues, to understand the implications of structure in today's world? One thinks of globalization. In an earlier phase, the word was "interdependence." There is a penchant for finding new trends and then saying "the game is over" with regard to structure and these relational issues. Why is that?

It's simply because the actors you observe -- who is it doing things in the world -- are states, and the interrelation of states. And those interrelations do vary. They're sometimes closer, they're sometimes looser. It's states that do things, and especially it's the states of greatest power who do things. So if you're looking at immediate causes, that's where you find the immediate causes.

It takes an act of the mind to conceive of how the conditions under which these actions and interactions occur influence the actions and interactions themselves. That's not something that you open your eyes and look at and see, or read about in The New York Times every morning. It takes an act of thought to do that.

Globalization is a very interesting example of this, for what appears to us as globalization appears to much of the world, no doubt to most of the world, very simply, as Americanization. In other words, the world is no longer bipolar. It's now unipolar. There is one great power and one only. This condition has not existed since Rome. That is, no country has dominated the relevant part of the globe since Rome, to the extent that we do. And, of course, Rome's realm was a part of the world. Our realm is the entire globe.

Before we talk about this new position of the U.S. in the world, I want to ask you one thing. I know that you wrote quite a bit about the stability of the bipolar world. And that was unconventional when you wrote about it, because the very interactions between us and the Soviets were creating this Cold War fear that made people not want to accept what you were saying. It was structure that made you see the stability that was actually there, which many people were not seeing.

That's right. Looking back, the article on stability of a bipolar world was published in 1964. It was strangely controversial. It made people mad. I first gave the paper as a talk to the Harvard/MIT Arms Control Seminar. There was a lively and heated discussion following the presentation of the simple idea that this has become a world of two powers, in other words, a bipolar world. People were saying, "No, wait a minute. Europe still counts." Well, of course, Europe still counted, but not nearly as much, obviously, as it once did, and not merely as much as the United States and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the world's fate depended on the United States, the Soviet Union, and the interaction between them.

In economic terms, it was not a world of interdependence at all: the United States and the Soviet Union scarcely traded with one another. Militarily, the interdependence was close, because each could do grievous damage to the other. And in international politics, again, a realm of self-help; ultimately, that's what counts.

Within, I'd say, certainly within ten years, probably less than ten years, it became accepted: "Yes, of course, the world is bipolar." And that makes the really deep controversy by which this article was greeted all the more striking.

Next page: A Unipolar World

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