No Automatic Harmony: Kenneth Waltz
“In anarchy, there is no automatic harmony.”
Kenneth Waltz wrote unpleasant truths about the world and lived long enough to see the vindication of his positions. His book, Man, the State and War, and its follow-on, Theory of International Politics, would give rise to what its enemies would dub the Neorealist theory of political science. Waltz disliked the term, preferring Structural Realism to describe his theories.
Da Vinci once said “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.” Waltz did the opposite of his peers: he looked at the world as it was and worked back to the reasons. The field of International Relations was never the same thereafter. What Newton was to physics, Waltz was to political theory.
Kenneth Waltz’s unflinching honesty about the true nature of nations and wars is embodied in his statement: “Each state pursues its own interests, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy.”
I read Kenneth Waltz later in life. In him I found a better explication of my own hard-earned positions – that loyalties to nations and creeds are manufactured, that wars arise because they cannot be stopped, bloody ulcers symptomatic of the systemic failures inherent in those nations and creeds. What follows is what Kenneth Waltz meant to me.
Would you kill Hitler in his cradle, given the chance to return to Braunau am Inn in 1889 and the opportunity to strangle the wee tyke?
It’s a dumb question. If it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been another disenchanted blowhard. There were plenty of them running around at the time: Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo. And there was no shortage of blowhards in the USA then, either. Napoleon said greatness was the intersection of the times and the man. But mostly, it’s the times, I say.
Do nations wage wars for oil? Or, more generally, do evil tyrants and imperialists gin up wars because they’re driven by economic forces beyond their control?
No they don’t. The USA went to war in Iraq in 2003 and Iraq is letting oil leases but not to American firms. ExxonMobil concluded its own contracts with the Kurds and was excluded from the latest auction but they’re still owed 50M USD from previous work. It’s BP and Royal Dutch Shell, Russia’s Lukoil and Japan’s Inpex who are doing the deals these days.
Iran was the big geopolitical winner of that war. Iran now flies troops and munitions to the Syrian regime right over Baghdad: that would never have happened under Saddam.
“Asking who won a given war, someone has said, is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake. That in war there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat is a proposition that has gained increasing acceptance in the twentieth century.”
Wars happen because they can’t be stopped. Each nation exists in an anarchic twilight, caught between alliance and mistrust with all other nations. Even friendly nations spy on each other: their intelligence services secretly tattle to each other and about each other.
Any term which starts with “Neo-” is immediately suspect in my book, Neorealism especially so. Waltz observed nations are mostly guided by fear, the survival instinct. Others, such as John Mearsheimer, have taken this one step farther, saying nations are opportunistic, always seeking relative power advantages over their peers. I am with Waltz: much of what passes for grievance on the world stage is actually fearmongering uttered by politicians for domestic consumption.
There’s an old truism about how every military is preparing for the next war using the last war’s paradigms. A few nations have gotten beyond this stage: Costa Rica abolished its standing military and now maintains order with only a police force. But for the larger nations, especially those with nuclear weapons, there’s been what I call the Lawnmower Effect: wars, like dandelions, have quickly evolved to bloom below the height of the lawnmower.
Nobody fights Big Wars any more. Nobody invades a nation with nuclear weapons. That’s why every nation secretly wants nuclear weapons and it’s also why the Big Nations want to prevent nuclear proliferation. Waltz has been widely misunderstood on this point: he understood the threat of nuclear weapons as well as anyone. As varies the number of Nuclear Powers in the world, so varies the anarchic threat of one such nation detonating a nuclear weapon.
“External pressure seems to produce internal unity.”
Waltz understood, earlier than anyone else (afaict) how the end of the Cold War with its two-pole force structure would give rise to a multipolar world and an epidemic of brush wars. Mistrust and existential fear would be the sleep of reason which breeds monsters.
During the Cold War, even mistrustful states had been driven into coalitions in the face of a common threat. When that threat died, others arose to replace them, threats for which the established nation states have no solutions.
Look at the West’s embargo upon Iran, North Korea, America’s idiotic embargo on Cuba. Embargoes have only served as barrel hoops, holding the rotten staves of these pariah states together. Conversely, look at the complexity of the relationship between China and the USA: as China rises in the world we bicker like married people over everything. But we’re talking, we’re trading, our children are learning each others’ languages.
Yan Xuetong, writing in FP, says of Kenneth Waltz:
Ken’s definition of theory also had a strong effect on me. He taught his students that a theory is an explanation of a law. This notion is especially important for Chinese students, who tend to use the term “theory” to refer to all kinds of political concepts. Ken’s strict definition of theory helps us to distinguish between theory and political principles, policy decisions, leaders’ ideas, religious beliefs, ideology, norms, etc. Ken’s students do not necessarily share the same view of international politics, but their works aspire to a similar level of logic and rigor.
Waltz’s work has had an enormous impact in China, where structural approaches to international politics are an increasingly important school of thought. For this reason, the Chinese Community of Political Science and International Studies has decided to hold a special panel commemorating his academic contributions at its annual conference on July 6 and 7. I am sure that it will be crowded with Ken’s disciples and that his work will continue to inspire Chinese scholars.
Well, Kenneth Waltz has passed away and he is mourned by many wise people. But his books and papers remain, still controversial, still important, still read by every student of International Relations. He said: “States in the world are like individuals in the state of nature. They are neither perfectly good nor are they controlled by law.” He wasn’t a pessimist. Waltz was a realist. There’s a profound difference. If states, like individuals, are not entirely guided by reason, they are composed of individuals, some of whom have the wisdom and humility to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.