A last dance with Kenneth Waltz (obituary)

7 posts

Niccolo and Donkey
A last dance with Kenneth Waltz

Asia Times Online

Sreeram Chaulia

May 21, 2013

The death on May 12 of one of the father figures of the theory of international relations (IR), Professor Kenneth Waltz, resonated with every academician who follows world politics. The founder of a dominant school of thought known as neorealism, Waltz, who died aged 88 from complications with pneumonia, was essential reading for generations of students and teachers who aimed to get an analytical handle over the arcana of foreign affairs.

Everyone read Waltz to make sense of confusing forms of behavior and explain outcomes of the complex interactions that comprised world politics. Every debate and discussion began with him, meaning that Waltz was a reference point that could not be ignored by anyone who wished to call themselves an IR specialist.

Another distinguished social scientist, Stanley Hoffmann, wrote in 1977 that the discipline of international relations was "an American social science", implying that its theoretical moorings and development were indisputably the handiwork of American academics after World War II.

Waltz was among this elite group, although he did not belong to the founding cohort of talented Jewish emigres who escaped Nazi persecution to America and became the pioneers of IR theory as we know it, viz John Herz and Hans Morgenthau. Being younger than these early advocates of classical realism, Waltz took over the baton and remade IR with some stunningly original postulates.

If the Cold War in the real world was personified in diplomacy by cold-blooded American practitioners such as John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger, the crown for Mr Cold War in academia was undoubtedly Waltz's. His core concept of international anarchy, where there is no global government to restrain or shape the actions of states, seemed to fit the animalistic terrain of the bipolar Cold War where two major superpowers threw around their weight, used the foulest of means and techniques, and tried to gain relative influence over each other.

In the absence of moral limits on superpower interventionism and skullduggery, Waltz's neo-Hobbesian depiction of an international order that is nasty, brutish and short appeared to be absolutely accurate and unblinkered reality (hence the popularity of the term "realism").

Although precepts about states acting selfishly with the intent of maximizing their own security and power at the cost of rival states were not new, Waltz packaged this hyper-competitive theoretical construct within a systemic analytical framework.

He made the art of realpolitik a science and tried to show that the paranoia and expansionist tendencies of great powers was less about the nature of being of states (as Morgenthau had preferred) and more about the nature of the system in which they operated. A quintessential structuralist, Waltz's appeal to many mainstream IR scholars was and remains his scientific method of extrapolating from the makeup of the system and then positing how the units (that is, states) would interact.

Until the 1970s, Waltz was at the peak of his career as the guru of IR who had to be cited and quoted by every scholar in American academia as well as globally. But the thaw in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as detente, and the phenomenal increase in traction of economic diplomacy began to dent Waltzian neorealism's place as the dominant paradigm. He had written Man, the State and War in 1959 and Theory of International Politics 20 years later.

The first significant challenge came from Robert Keohane's "neoliberal institutionalism", which accepted some basic premises of neorealism, but portrayed a world where cooperation and economic interdependence were perfectly rational choices for states. To the IR neoliberals (not to be confused with the much-derided neoliberalism of economics), instead of being daggers drawn at each other and ready for an ever-present danger of war, the great powers that mattered, and even smaller powers, could engage in mutually beneficial exchanges via multilateral institutions and international organizations.

Morgenthau and Waltz had made the world look naturally conflictual and war-prone, and there was an excess of militarism at the heart of neorealism. But as the Cold War wore off, such a Hobbesian visage of a perpetual state of war appeared jarring and strangely unrealistic. If Waltzians had set out to explain why states were always quarreling or forming alliances against other groups of states, the neoliberal institutionalists began to ask why states were actually trading and investing in each other and even resolving bilateral or multilateral problems through win-win diplomacy.

Waltz and his legions of disciples hung on to their vision and spiritedly defended themselves in the post-Cold War era by predicting the return of great power animosities and counterbalancing tendencies. But they sounded passe because of the astonishing rate at which economic globalization had remade the so-called anarchic world order.

Markets and multinational corporations broke down the statist structure of the international system and introduced ideas like a "borderless world" and free movement of goods, services and capital without the hindrance of state control.

As defense budgets fell in the 1990s and diplomatic missions around the world metamorphosed almost entirely into facilitators of trade and commerce for their companies, the "absolute gains of interaction" model of neoliberal institutionalists appeared to have triumphed over the old orthodoxy of zero-sum-game Waltzian neorealism.

Waltz continued to insist that states, and only states, still mattered as the main actors that could cause outcomes in world affairs. But it was a hard sell in the context of the rise of mega corporations and financial megaliths like Goldman Sachs, which seemed to be running the American state rather than the other way around.

Central to the shift of guard away from neorealism has been the relationship between China and the United States in recent times. Are they undermining each other or growing together? The presence of a dualistic trend of conflict-cum-cooperation among major powers, where economic exchanges acquired a life of their own and often drove the overall bilateral relations, drilled holes into the neorealist ship.

Not even the return to the "global war on terrorism" in the new millennium could turn back the clock towards Waltzian neorealism. Al Qaeda-like actors were not proxies of a single state entity but were still shaping the agenda of international conflict.

The addition of these violent non-state actors to the multinational corporations made Waltz's insistence on states as the central drivers of world politics outdated. Other systemic theories like Samuel Huntington's "civilizational clash" (which gives primacy to cultural blocs rather than nation-states), "neo-Marxism" (which had a good claim to explain economic globalization) as well as ideologically diffused, methods-driven academic movements like "constructivism" ate into the first-among-equals position of Waltzian neorealism.

By the time of his death, amidst the onset of a multipolar world undergoing a profound capitalist crisis, Waltz's camp was no longer the preeminent IR tent where scholars had to find a foot inside or be outcast. The rise of emerging economies has intensified the search for coherent and parsimonious non-Western IR theories.

In Asia, the investments made into alternative IR theories by Japan and China stand out as harbingers of the future. In India, strategic elites often talk about a distinct Indian form of discourse and thought on global affairs, a heritage that has been utterly neglected but one that will inevitably come to the fore as India attempts to become a major power and influence international behavior.

If the global economy and world politics are set to be dominated by non-Western states and non-state actors, then surely the academic discipline of IR will also follow suit. Looking back at Waltz's illustrious career, it is obvious that his visions and arguments were reflective of the power realities of the post-World War II period. If the sociology of knowledge in the academic discipline of IR is any guide, then something fresh and non-Western will eventually arise to shake up the "American social science" and transform it.

Theory is an abstraction based on observation of common patterns of actual behavior. Whether Waltz will fade away even more or make a posthumous comeback depends on how foreign relations evolve in the future. For the weak and the vulnerable nations and peoples of the world, neorealism had often loomed like a curse, because it decreed that big powers could naturally bully them without any legal limits or moral compunctions.

But when the formerly weak societies become strong, as is the case with the emerging economies set today, will they emulate their erstwhile masters and embark on a repetition of big power browbeating of smaller states?

Is Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei's concept of a "civilizational state", which would behave differently from the Eurocentric nation state, accurate? Is the Indian Gandhian precept of power and wealth as attributes of custodianship that can be utilized to uplift the moral and social realm likely to return as a principle to govern international intercourses? Is the African principle of "Ubuntu" and shared humanity waiting for a global debut as a new model of international and inter-social relations?

Waltz was not exactly an apologist for American hegemony or a justifier of great power freedom to trample over the downtrodden. Neorealists ironically saw themselves as liberators who had the best policy mix of solutions for the weak to resist the strong through alliances and military self-reliance. Waltz's championing of the idea of a "nuclear peace", wherein countries like Iran and North Korea should be permitted to have the atomic bomb in order to stabilize their respective regions, did give the weak weapons to defend themselves against perpetual interference and invasions of the great powers.

Yet, while Waltz provided options to the disadvantaged, these tools were still steeped in militaristic modes. The neorealist maxim of "prepare for war if you want peace" became a self-fulfilling prophecy and a dangerous idea, which was internalized by many jingoistic and ultra-nationalistic state elites, much to the detriment of the masses.

The most fatal flaw of Waltzian logic - underestimation of domestic politics and an obsession with inter-state war and stability - set back human welfare and social stability. Waltz never saw people as active makers of history with aspirations, struggling within every nation-state for dignity. The ultimate peddler of "system-level" theories was so blinded by the structures at the top that he missed the human elements that constitute the world.

Theoreticians to come will continue to waltz with Kenneth Waltz, but in a selective manner. In empirical instances where Waltzian predictions still seem applicable, they will be credited. Where the world moves in fresh directions, Waltz's gems will be left behind as relics of an historic American era of IR.
Niccolo and Donkey

The problem with Waltz, as opposed to Morgenthau and Carl Schmitt and others, is that his views were tethered to the Westphalian paradigm - as all ''neorealist'' schools of thought were. Men like Waltz considered structural features of power to be paramount - this was common to post-War thinkers in various social studies; C Wright Mills comes to mind as does Peter Drucker.

This however doesn't impugn realism qua realism - Classical realism identifies the political sphere as an expression of man's basic will-to-power; the structural form of political power isn't particularly important, enduring or perennial. Politics, various kinds of nationalism, sectarian affinity, ethnic preferences, racial troubles, etc. are what is constant - modern-era ''states'' are not constant.

Suggesting that power politics is simply the relationship between states is like describing economics as the activity of limited liability corporations. It misses the point largely of political theory and the study of war and peace.

Niccolo and Donkey

One of the key criticisms thrown Waltz's way during my time in IR was that he leaned too heavily on states as primary actors and didn't factor in the role of NGOs. NGOs were still in their infancy during those first several years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, I don't think that critique is all that valid anymore in light of how NGOs often work hand-in-glove with governments, to the point where their funding comes from state sources. NGOs are murky and are often arms of the regime with the attempt at plausible deniability.
I agree with that, sure - but even before the advent of NGOs on the world stage, states were more ephemeral and permeable than neo-realists would allow.

One think that Brzezinski was insightful about was the Soviet system (obviously). His point as early as the late 1950s was that the Soviet system had inherent frailties because 1) the USSR was an empire that violently oppressed nationalities in an age of nationalism; 2) it was a divided house of competing interests, often operating at cross purposes to one another, and the State was essentially a compromise between them.

The USSR of course was an unusual state in many ways, but in the ways described above it was common. The ''state'' is not and never was any kind of monolithic power base unto itself that is entirely vertically integrated. Waltz's problem, and Mearsheamer's to a lesser degree, is that they analyze state behavior largely by how states behave at war - war being the zenith of state-executive power. We cannot extrapolate much from the study of war about the state as the state - other than to notice of course that the state's main raison d'etre is to wage war when necessary.

There's quite a bit to digest, but I'll just make a couple quick comments.

This passage made me pause for a moment. International relations i.e. "IR theory as we know it" is at once both (1) an "American" social science developed by "American" academics, and (2) pioneered by a founding cohort of Jewish emigres. Am I reading this right? This can only be true if these Jewish emigres are considered to be Americans. I don't want to argue over definitions, but it seems fishy that the foreign-born individuals who pioneered IR theory would emphasize state actors when they themselves were arguably displaying the strength of a certain kind of non-state actor. At the very least, it complicates the explanation of the role of the state in IR theory. After all, if any sufficiently organized foreign, non-state actor (e.g. international Jewry) can walk into a country and gain largely by stealth substantial influence over the policy-making organs of a given state, then that needs to be accounted for in the theory.

But it's not just Waltz's paradigm whose future dominance is uncertain, but every alternative paradigm as well. If these theories can't make non-trivial predictions; if we continually have to wait for foreign relations to "evolve" before we can evaluate the descriptive power these various theories, then not only are these theories probably ay best quasi-scientific, but - as evidenced by heavy Jewish involvement - they're probably just another form of politics masquerading as a science of politics. See: neoconservative thinktank wankery.
I believe the 20th century represented an unusual paradigm in power-political relations/conflict. What Hobsbaum called the ''short century'' - approximately 1914-1991. Peculiar alliances emerged on grounds of the punctuated decline in European power, the rise of Russia and the ascendancy of the ''colored'' world. Not a lot of meaningful data can be extrapolated from the 20th century in other words, as per strategic studies, other than general information about deterrence and nuclear strategy and the sociological and political effects of mass mobilization.

Mearsheimer made the point in the last decade that the 21st century will likely look like the 19th century (post-Waterloo). Interstate warring is generally rare, and interdependence is in most eras fairly heavy because there's not overweening security challenges precluding market integration.

The lesson gleaned I suppose is that men like Waltz were situated in an extraordinarily dangerous, violent, and volatile strategic landscape that was notable for being ''abnormal'', yet that they misread as representing the new status quo.