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 Unipolar World

Were you surprised when the Soviet Union disappeared?

Not especially. I had been giving lectures in the United States and abroad in which I pointed out -- and this goes back to the middle to late seventies -- that the Soviet Union was in a steady decline. If you recall, the 1980s was when Reagan and those who agreed with him were saying that the Soviet Union was catching up with us, they were going to pass us. "The Soviet Union has become the most powerful military country in the world" -- Reagan, you know. "They passed us on all fronts -- strategic and conventional alike."

Well, the opposite was the truth, and one could see it. I mean, you can look at data. You could look at the demographic composition of the Soviet Union, with the Russian component sinking and the non-Russian component of the population rising. You could look at the extent to which the Soviet Union was falling behind in military technology -- indeed, in technology across the board, and therefore in military technology as well. It looked to me as though the Soviet Union was on a losing course. You could also see it in the fact that the Soviet Union couldn't adjust to change, agriculture being the best example. They just kept doing the same wrong things, year after year, decade after decade. It was a very static government, making changes very difficult, and then, of course, the change, when it did come, was a big and shocking one.

But I wrote, even in a book published in 1979, that the real question then in the world was, would the Soviet Union be able to keep up with the United States? I developed that idea in some publications and in a lot of talks. Again, it was very controversial.

I remember, especially, being in China for the first time in 1982, and presenting this analysis to one of the institutes, which I've now talked at over the years about four or five times. The last time was in 1996, and I reminded them of 1982. What they were saying was, "Hey, the Soviet Union is getting ahead." In fact, that's why China was moving toward the United States, because it felt that the United States was getting weaker, and in order to form a block of sufficient strength against the Soviet Union, they had to edge over toward our side. Again, perceptions of what the structure of international politics is at a given time strongly influence the policy that one follows. So I was saying, "No, the Soviet Union is getting weaker. The United State is getting relatively stronger." And the people at this institute who were charged with thinking about this -- this was the purpose of their institute, to think about things like this -- had reached the opposite conclusion. They ... well, they were wrong.

So we have this situation now in the contemporary world, where we're in a unipolar world. The enormity of U.S. power -- military, economic -- in comparison to everybody else is quite amazing. What is the greatest danger of such a world?

The greatest danger was described very well by a French cleric, who died in 1713, who was also a counselor to rulers, who said: I have never known a country disposing of overwhelming power to behave with forbearance and moderation for more than a very short period of time. And we've seen this over and over again. It illustrates nicely how states fail to learn from history, from other countries' experiences. Time and time again, countries that dispose of overwhelming power, as we now do, have abused their power. The key characteristic of a unipolar world is that there are no checks and balances against that power, so it's free to follow its fancy, it's free to act on its whims. Since there are very minor, very weak external constraints, everything depends on the internal politics of the country in question.

Now, it is possible, of course, to imagine that the internal politics would be a restraint. book coverChecks and balances are supposed to work in the United States; it's ingrained in our thinking. But, in fact, they don't work very well, or at least in my view they are not working very well. They do not place effective constraints on what the government can do abroad. They do not place effective constraints on how much we spend on our military forces. In 1998, for example, we outspent the next eight big spenders. We're now spending about as much as the next fourteen or fifteen. And, according to The New York Times, projecting the spending until next year, we will be spending as much as all the other countries in the world combined on our military forces. Now, what do we want all that military force for? Other countries are bound to ask that question. They do ask that question. And they worry about it, because power can be so easily abused.

So what is going to happen down the road? It doesn't appear that others can organize against us. Is there a danger that we will shoot ourselves in the foot?

Exactly. The gap between the United States and others, technologically as well as militarily -- the military gap is simply obvious. Nobody can miss it, right? But that's based on our economy and our technological abilities. And the gaps have become so wide that no combination of other countries and no other country singly in the foreseeable future is going to be able to balance the power of the United States. Now, in the end, power will balance power, and there isn't any doubt that the Chinese are smarting, very uncomfortable with the extent to which the United States dominates the world militarily. I'm not implying that it doesn't bother other countries as well. But China, if it maintains its political coherence, its political capabilities, will have in due course the economic and the technological means of competing. But how far away is that? Certainly, twenty years. Probably more than twenty years.

Next page: Deterrence and Rogues

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