Kenneth N. Waltz, 88; Shaped Foreign Relations Theory

By Martin, Douglas | International Herald Tribune, May 20, 2013 | Go to article overview

Kenneth N. Waltz, 88; Shaped Foreign Relations Theory


Martin, Douglas, International Herald Tribune


Mr. Waltz regarded the nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union as a stable balance of power, and he endorsed nuclear proliferation as a force for peace.

Kenneth N. Waltz, a pre-eminent thinker on international relations who was known for his contrarian, debate-provoking ideas, not least his view that stability in the Middle East might be better served if Iran had a nuclear weapon, died on May 12 in New York. He was 88.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said Columbia University, where Mr. Waltz was a senior research scholar.

Leslie H. Gelb, emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, characterized Mr. Waltz as one of five "giants" who shaped the study of international relations as a discrete discipline, the others being Hans Morgenthau, Henry A. Kissinger, Samuel P. Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The field developed in the 1950s, when the experiences of two world wars and the beginning of the Cold War drove scholars to try to explain more precisely how nations interacted. The goal was to build a conceptual framework on which international politics could be analyzed, something earlier courses on military and diplomatic history had not offered.

"Without a theory, we're just lost," said Robert Jervis, a political science professor at Columbia. "We just have all these random phenomena we can't make any sense of."

One of Mr. Waltz's propositions was that wars were not caused simply by human aggression or bad governments but by the anarchic, dog-eat-dog nature of international relations. Each nation-state, he said, would push as far as it could to advance its own self- interests.

He used as an example the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he said freed the United States to become a bully because it no longer had an opponent in its own weight class. In this new "unipolar" world, the United States "abuses its power, singling out poor, weak countries -- that's what we specialize in -- and beating them up," he said in 2011 in an oral history interview at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It is sad," he continued, "but this is a typical behavior of powers that are dominant, or used to be dominant in their regions, and now are globally dominant."

Mr. Waltz shook conventional wisdom by regarding the "bipolar" nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union as one of the most stable balances of power ever -- not the knife-edge of planetary annihilation. His critics, however, saw the failure of the bipolar model in the experience of World War I, in which two rigid, pre-existing alliances clashed with devastating results.

Mr. Waltz countered that the Cold War was fundamentally different, because the 20th-century superpowers were so much stronger than their allies that only the superpowers mattered.

Even more, Mr. Waltz endorsed nuclear proliferation as a force for peace. "The measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared," he wrote in 1981. He argued that nuclear states had always safeguarded their weapons carefully, and that no nuclear state had ever been involved in a major war. (He said the fighting between nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan in 1999 did not constitute a major war.)

Mr. Waltz's goal was to clarify thinking about international politics by offering a perspective he called "structural realism," or neorealism, in which interactions between nations matter most in fomenting war.

"Even when you disagree, he moves your thinking ahead," Mr. Jervis said.

More than his views on particular foreign-policy issues, it was Mr. …

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