Explaining war

Kenneth Waltz's theories remain the critical starting point for students of international relations

Published:May 17, 2013 3:33 am

Robert Powell

Kenneth Waltz’s theories remain the critical starting point for students of international relations

Kenneth N. Waltz,a preeminent scholar of international relations,passed away on May 13,2013 in New York. The cause was complications of pneumonia. He was 88. Waltz received his BA from Oberlin College and took his PhD from Columbia University in 1954,after serving in the US army during World War II and the Korean conflict. He was a member of the faculty at Columbia University,Swarthmore College,Brandeis University and then the University of California,Berkeley.

Waltz argued famously and controversially that nuclear proliferation or,as he preferred to say,the spread of nuclear weapons,makes major war less likely. Nuclear-armed states,India and Pakistan included,are less likely to fight a major war against each other than they would be if they did not have nuclear weapons. The obvious reading of the Kargil conflict for Waltz was that “the presence of nuclear weapons prevented escalation from major skirmish to full-scale war”.

A strong believer that a second-strike capability was enough to deter,more weapons and more nuclear options did not make things safer or more dangerous; they only wasted money.

He argued in Foreign Affairs last summer that a nuclear-armed Iran,rather than being the worst possible outcome of the current conflict,would probably be the outcome “most likely to restore stability to the Middle East”. By reducing imbalances of power,new nuclear states typically bring more,rather than less,regional and international stability. In the fall of 2002,Waltz joined a group of other international relations scholars in opposing the coming war with Iraq.

Waltz established himself as a leading thinker in international relations theory with the publication of his first book,Man,the State,and War in 1959. It is still in print — indeed a digital version is now available — and the book is a mainstay of undergraduate courses. Waltz provided a typology for the causes of war. First-image explanations locate the causes of war within man. Hans Morgenthau attributed war to man’s desire for power. Second-image accounts explain war in terms of the structure of states,for example,democracies versus authoritarian states,capitalist versus socialist. Henry Kissinger linked international instability to revolutionary states. Going back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt,third-image explanations find the causes of war to lie in the international system itself and,more specifically,in international anarchy. Even if every individual and every state were good,conflicts of interest would still arise. After all,conflicts,or more politely,differences in taste or circumstance,make gains from trade possible. But in the anarchy of international politics,there is nothing to prevent a state from trying to resolve these differences through the use of force.

Waltz’s Theory of International Politics appeared in 1979 and defined much of the field for the next 15 years. Whether agreeing or disagreeing with him,virtually every international relations scholar began by locating her work in terms of Waltz. The most important factor affecting the stability of the international system,for Waltz,was the distribution of power among the states. Relations among states are largely determined by their position in the system. Many were amazed that France and Germany found peace after World War II,given their long history of violent conflict. Waltz was not. Both had fallen from the ranks of the great powers,and the primary axis of conflict had shifted to the two poles of the bipolar world. That made the European Community and later,the European Union,possible.

The writer is Robson Professor of Political Science at the University of California,Berkeley,US

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