There is much to learn from his exposition of realism, his lasting legacy to international relations theory, and its limitations

I spent nearly a year as a student at a pre-eminent school of international relations before I realised I had come across little of Kenneth Waltz’s scholarship. In fact, I had studiously avoided being exposed to it. To me, this was a fair bargain since Professor Waltz had, for the most part of his life, steered clear of research in international law and organisations, which I was interested in. But in keeping away, I had merely reinforced a worrying trend in the graduate study of political science, where the application of theoretical concepts has been neatly stored in silos. I was more than happy to perpetuate this division because my indifference to Waltz was borne out of righteous self-indignation, and more importantly, fear.

On the one hand, this prodigious scholar, from his perch at Columbia University, had spawned a post-war literature that reinvigorated the dismal notion of realism. Kenneth Waltz’s first book — his doctoral dissertation — was to the field of international relations what Helen’s face was to the Trojan War. This meant the rest of us, who spent our energies on norms, cooperation and the persuasive force of morality in international affairs, had to live under his shadow — our work doomed to oblivion as “idealistic” and thus ‘un’real.

On the other, here was a theorist whose writings shone through with a conviction rarely seen in the social sciences. His prose was eminently readable and his argumentation of razor-sharp clarity. He read The New York Times and recommended it to his students over peer-reviewed journals, rendering him a formidable threat to anyone in academia. Reading him, I was convinced, could fatally damage the woolly foundations upon which my brief stay in the ivory tower rested.

More so, because Waltz’s substantive claims were compelling and often irrefutable. The concept of neorealism, developed in his classic 1979 work, Theory of International Politics, continues to have an enormous impact in the study of international relations the world over. He articulated a view of the international system where states were the most important actors, each constantly vying to triumph over another. Their pursuit of national interests would be driven by rational agency and the imperative to survive. Cooperation and interdependence among countries was a mirage, he argued, merely reflecting the structural limits imposed by a deeply hierarchical order. Left to fend for themselves in an anarchic set-up, nations would aim for a “balance of power” which dictated their conduct and diplomacy.

Focus on stability

These propositions drove Waltz to place a premium on “stability” in international politics. To him, all and any development which offered a semblance of the same was desirable; a view that led his scholarship in truly unconventional — some would say bizarre — directions. In the run-up to the Cold War, he argued that a bipolar world, stretched between the United States and the USSR, was a durable and even favourable form. As recently as last year, he pleaded the case for Iran going nuclear — the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Waltz suggested, would balance power between Tehran and Tel Aviv, resulting in a stable Middle East.

Through his writings, Waltz taunted the U.S. liberal intelligentsia for their “strong desire to get the politics out of politics.” To votaries of Pax Americana and its benevolent hegemony, his scholarship was akin to a dousing with cold water. Deeply sceptical that any nation with untrammelled power would put it to good use, Waltz worried about the consequences of American unipolarity. When international lawyers decried the Bush “doctrine of pre-emption” that served as the normative justification for the 2003 Iraq invasion, they found common cause with Kenneth Waltz, who suggested there was nothing pre-emptive or preventive in this muscular display of aggression.

If the relentless critiques, rejoinders and outright attacks on his theory were a testament to its strength, there can be no doubt that his argumentation sometimes gave way to serious misgivings. Kenneth Waltz may have been an astute observer of international politics, but often his post facto justification of events — centred largely on the Cold War — was aimed simply at defending the realist enterprise than articulating a cogent explanation. In the realm of grand theory, where the line between correlation and causation is blurred, there is very little room for nuance and the micro-politics of international relations. His spectacularly flawed and premature prediction of NATO’s demise after the Cold War is telling. Waltz had claimed NATO would fade away into irrelevance, an assertion whose undoing questions the balance of power thesis.

Having taken a dip in the vast reservoir of his scholarship, I can claim to have come out the better, albeit shivering. His legacy is indelible, and there is much to learn from his exposition of the world, and from its limitations. The narrative of power, which is the defining tenet of structural realism, is a useful one to throw light on international relations. But Waltz sought to define his theory as an “autonomous field of study”: if there is one thing history has taught us, it is that international law and politics are forever enmeshed. As the proliferation of non-state actors, international legal regimes and multilateral organisations — all minor cogs in the Waltzian wheel — show, power struggles cannot offer a comprehensive explanation for everything. The interaction between nation-states and the international order is a two-way street. Just as states seek to manipulate the latter to attain their objectives, the system too moulds their interests in surprising and inexplicable ways. How else could one explain the discourse around global financial deregulation, humanitarian intervention and climate change?

All differences aside, there is no doubt that students, teachers and policymakers are left poorer in the wake of this giant’s passing. Kenneth Waltz, a prolific scholar, committed teacher and profound thinker in the field of international relations, passed away on May 12 in New York last week. He was 88, and kept things real.

(Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.)

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