National Security

Requiem for a Realist

The legacy of Kenneth Waltz.

Earlier this week, Kenneth Waltz, one of the world's most influential scholars of international relations, died at the age of 88. His books Man, the State, and War  and Theory of International Politics are classics in the field, and his influence on students, colleagues, and policymakers was profound. Waltz was a theorist who also delved into the most contentious debates in U.S. foreign policy, opposing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and earning himself a reputation as a realist far outside the confines of the ivory tower. As Stephen Walt noted here last week, "Ken showed that you could be a theorist and a social scientist without joining the 'cult of irrelevance' that afflicts so much of academia." To take a closer look at Professor Waltz's career, FP has assembled this collection of short essays on his contributions to political science and beyond.

Robert Gallucci: Remembering the professor

Richard K. Betts: Ever the realist

Scott D. Sagan: Remembering the nuclear strategist

Ken Booth: The Darwin of international relations

Yan Xuetong: Teaching Waltz in Beijing

Barry R. Posen: How Waltz changed international relations

Remembering the professor

By Robert Gallucci

Forty-six years ago, I was a first-year grad student at Brandeis University when I went to see Ken Waltz to find out what I needed to know to be his teaching assistant for an undergraduate course in international relations. "It'll be easy," I remember him saying, "because you'll be taking my graduate seminar in IR theory at the same time."

It wasn't easy. His lectures to undergrads covered political theorists who addressed the international system of nation-states and how it explained the conditions of war and peace in a whole range of historical periods -- from the Greek and Italian city-states, through Bismarck's Europe, to the Cold War world of the 1960s. The graduate seminar was different: Not fewer than five books were required reading for each anxiety-filled class, and there was an optional reading list that actually induced depression. Waltz lectured the undergrads and led the graduate seminar. He did both brilliantly -- better than I had ever seen. He had great praise for those writers and thinkers he thought intelligent, and withering criticism for those he judged soft-headed or lacking the analytical capacity essential to theory.

Ken was my thesis advisor until he left Brandeis for Berkeley. His own thesis had arguably become the most important book ever written on international relations theory: Man, the State, and War. His parting words to me as he sent me off to write mine were, "Bob, please don't try to write MSW, just write something serious." It was extraordinarily good advice. He was also sympathetic to my desire not to serve in Vietnam, to a point. I recall him noting that since he had been unlucky enough to have caught the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War, I might understand if his sympathy for my vulnerability to the draft was limited.

Ken's scholarship went against conventional wisdom. He argued that the U.S.-Soviet competition that defined the bipolar structure of the postwar world was not to be deplored for its zero-sum character, but embraced for its stability. He argued that democracy does not handicap governments in the competition among nations as most observers did but actually improves a country's foreign policy. Most controversially, he argued that, when it comes to the number of states that have nuclear weapons, "more may be better."

We differed on the last point, and sometimes on the key, recurring question of American foreign policy: When is military intervention justified, by which he meant, when is it in the national interest? Waltz had no patience for "liberal intervention," or what we might now call humanitarian intervention, because we could never be sure that we would succeed in making things better over the long-term. And he had little patience for supposed national security arguments that could not identify a threat to vital interests -- we are not, and therefore should not act like, an empire. Waltz was not an isolationist, but he was definitely a minimalist when it came to the use of force.

Kenneth Waltz's writing has influenced the way generations of students think about international affairs. That will continue for as long as nations live in "a state of nature." But now, those of us fortunate enough to have been his students and enjoyed his mentorship have lost a most valued friend and colleague.

Robert Gallucci is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ever the realist

By Richard K. Betts

Like any truly great thinker, Ken Waltz defied stereotypes. The preeminent hard-headed theorist of power politics, he savaged the hopes of those who believe that moral energy, liberal principles, or democratic crusades can end war. But he belied the common assumption that realists are callous hawks who relish the use of force. He opposed the Vietnam War, the Reagan military buildup, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq as overreactions to threats that were exaggerated and could be handled by calm containment and deterrence.

Ken saw world politics as an anarchic "self-help system" because no enforcement authority exists above the level of nation-states. But he also believed that sensible leaders can nevertheless preserve peace if they give up ambitions to control the world and instead craft balances of power that make the costs of war clearly exceed the gains. This simple idea was in the grand realist tradition, but Waltz developed it with much greater analytic precision and clarity. And as a theorist he took it to logical conclusions that were not always persuasive in the frequently illogical world of policy. This was evident in his argument that nuclear proliferation is benign because the prospect of mutual annihilation makes the risk of war unthinkable to rivals in unstable regions, as it did for the superpowers in the Cold War.

Like other great thinkers, Waltz was sometimes the victim of false charges about what he claimed. Many who fail to read his work carefully accuse him of denying the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy. His second book, Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics, was actually all about that. A basic point of his work in general that many miss is that a theory of foreign policy is not the same as a theory of international politics. Psychological and domestic political impulses account for what nations try to do at any particular time (foreign policy). The constraining structure of the international system, however, subjects those intentions to opposing forces and thus accounts for typical results over time. States sometimes do choose policies based on ideology, culture, or leaders' idiosyncrasies that do not take sober account of their adversaries' power, but when they do, in Waltz's words, they "fall by the wayside." Wars happen because there is no higher authority to prevent foolish risks.

On a few points Ken had a bit too much confidence in the conclusions to be drawn from theoretical logic, as in his certainty about the future stability of mutual nuclear deterrence. When the immediate prospect of apocalypse is not at issue, however, he fully realized that policymakers all too often fail to recognize the logic of restraint. He once told me he bought stocks in the defense industry as the Cold War reheated in the late 1970s not because sharply increased military spending would be the right choice for American policy, but because he knew it would happen. Ken Waltz, ever the realist.

Richard K. Betts is the director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

Remembering the nuclear strategist

By Scott D. Sagan

Kenneth Waltz was one of world's preeminent theorists of international relations. He was also a hugely influential nuclear strategist, especially concerning the consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons. The first observation is widely recognized; the second observation is not. Waltz, like other realists such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, was reluctantly respected for his insights about how the anarchic nature of international politics creates self-help imperatives and pressures all states to be "nasty and brutish" so that their lives will not be "short." But American security specialists have often viewed Waltz's views about the positive, "stabilizing" effects of nuclear proliferation to be radically outside the mainstream and thus not influential.

But this is a narrow, inside-the-Beltway perspective, for Waltz's writings on nuclear proliferation were widely read around the globe and provided an alternative perspective that helps explain why U.S. fears about nuclear proliferation are not always shared by other governments. His seminal work on this subject -- a 1981 Adelphi Paper provocatively entitled "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better" -- presented a simple but controversial argument: Nuclear weapons are so destructive that the threat of retaliation with even a small arsenal will easily deter any state that faces a nuclear adversary. If this is true, then new countries that get nuclear weapons will behave like the superpowers during the Cold War, issuing threats and huffing and puffing in crises but avoiding war.

This view was not popular in Washington, but it was popular elsewhere. I speak from experience, for I have been a long-standing critic of Waltz's perspective on nuclear proliferation. He and I published three editions of a popular "debate book" about the spread of nuclear weapons, and we engaged in spirited public debates about the subject in venues ranging from bookstores in Berkeley to lecture halls at Columbia, from State Department seminars in Washington to War College courses in New Delhi. And while my "proliferation pessimist" position -- based on theories about common organizational failures and pathologies in civil-military relations -- usually "won over" audiences inside the District of Columbia, when we traveled overseas together, he usually had the audience in the palm of his hand. They commonly cheered when he accused American officials of being ethnocentric or even racist for believing that the United States can safely enjoy the benefits of nuclear deterrence, but that other countries cannot.

Government officials and military strategists in states that are developing nuclear weapons or thinking about doing so often have echoed Waltz's claim that "nuclear weapons make wars hard to start." And if a scholar's influence can also be measured by the importance of the critics he or she attracts, it should be noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly disagreed with Waltz's 2012 Foreign Affairs article, "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb," on Meet the Press.

Waltz made friends and foes alike think more clearly and argue with more rigor. That is no small legacy. He will be missed.

Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of political science and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. His most recent book, co-authored with Kenneth N. Waltz, is The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (2012).

The Darwin of international relations

By Ken Booth

It is difficult to imagine the academic study of international relations today in the absence of the work of Ken Waltz. There can be little doubt, even on the part of his critics, that he has been the single most significant figure in our field in the postwar era.

Waltz is to the study of international relations what Darwin is to the study of biology. I make this claim in terms of the sheer intellectual significance of his theoretical contribution. One cannot make sense of the biological world apart from Darwin's theory of evolution: equally, Waltz's structural framework for understanding how states interact under anarchy, with an uneven distribution of power and a desire to survive, offers a powerful theory for making sense of the international system. Neither theory explains everything in their domain -- one always needs to know more about particularities -- but both provide compelling big-picture explanations of their domains.

Waltz wrote few books over a long career. He liked to say that "we don't need more books, we need better ones," and he practiced what he preached. Man, the State, and War (1959) and Theory of International Politics (1979) are both classics, with time-transcending significance and influence. The levels-of-analysis approach to the causes of war in the earlier book was a decisive contribution to grappling with the discipline's traditional core problematic, while the "parsimonious" theory in the later book had a profound impact throughout the discipline.

Nobody has influenced the field as deeply or in as many directions as Ken Waltz. Disciples and critics alike are his offspring, whether their work has been to refine and develop his ideas (new schools of realism and liberalism) or to try to think outside the Waltzian world (some constructivism and critical theory). By persuasion and provocation, he lifted the discipline to a new level.

Waltz was a stubborn defender of his theory, of course, but he did not over-claim. He was not a structural determinist, nor did he think his theory necessarily timeless. In particular, he emphasized that his was a "systemic theory" of international politics, not a "reductionist theory" of foreign policy. In other words, Waltz's theory of the international system did not tell us how the individual units in their foreign and defense policies would behave -- though he had his own clear ideas about the sorts of behavior the system would reward or punish. His views about the positive utility of the controlled spread of nuclear weapons, for example, were particularly controversial.

The debates generated by Waltz's work have made the IR discipline what it is today. His work, like that of other "realists" once thought past their sell-by dates, has been and is being re-thought. We still have much to learn from him, and in that regard Ken Waltz's influence will live on not simply through his writings but through his impact on individual lives -- as a remarkable teacher, a human being who attracted loyalty, a generous friend, an intellectual giant, and a professional role model for all who knew him. He was and will remain our indispensable theorist.

Ken Booth FBA is editor of International Relations, formerly chair of the British International Studies Association, and E.H. Carr Professor in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University.

Teaching Waltz in Beijing

By Yan Xuetong

Before I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in political science at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987, I had never learned anything about international relations theory. I took Kenneth Waltz's Poli Sci 223 in my very first semester not because I had already heard of him but because my advisor told me that taking his course was essential. In this way, Ken became the first professor to teach me IR theory.

Due to my poor English and lack of prior knowledge, I failed his midterm exam. Ken called me to his office and told me that he understood my situation and would not count the midterm grade if I got a better grade on the final. He then spent a half-hour tutoring me on the concept of power and the idea of "system structure." Among other things, he told me that he disliked the label "neorealism" because he felt that the term told you nothing about the theory itself. Instead, he preferred "structural realism" because it described the substance of his theory.

Not only did this talk clarify my understanding of his theory, it also turned me into a student of structural theory. Since then, my own work has sought to explain how different configurations of power drive major international changes, a topic I explore at length in a forthcoming book.

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.

Yan Xuetong is dean of Tsinghua University's Institute of Modern International Relations.

How Waltz changed international relations

By Barry R. Posen

Kenneth Waltz made critical contributions to the development of international relations theory, the debate on U.S. foreign and security policy, and the training of a new generation of international relations scholars. In the course of these contributions he has also served as a model of clarity of expression and logical argument.

Waltz's first critical contribution to international relations theory was his elucidation of the "levels of analysis" problem in Man, the State, and War. The categorization of explanatory theories into ones that respectively stress the role of human nature; state-level political, economic, and social systems; or the anarchical condition of international politics has proven a critical building block of modern international relations theory.

Through his exploration of theories at different levels of analysis, Waltz took the first giant step of his theoretical career. Even readers who do not wish to take the same step find the path illuminating. Waltz poses two major questions: If bad humans are the cause of war, why is there so much peace? If bad states (or societies, or economies) are the cause of war, why are so many good states implicated in wars? Why does war persist despite variation in the nature of the states and societies that make up the international system? Waltz suspected that classical realism and balance of power theory would tell us something about this -- but at that point he could not quite put his finger on it.

The device of "levels of analysis" has become a ready element of our vocabulary about international relations theories. It travels well. Even novices quickly grasp its utility, and find themselves better able to organize both their own and others' arguments after a brief introduction. More importantly, Man, the State, and War makes the case that there must be something distinctly "international" about international politics, which Waltz suspected could be traced to the absence of a sovereign. The book maps out a space that subsequent theorists, including Waltz, would then need to fill. After we read the book, we know this. Some may disagree with Waltz's subsequent arguments about the share of international politics that can be explained by "third image" -- or system-level -- theories, but none can dismiss them.

Waltz's second contribution to international relations theory is to be found in Theory of International Politics. There, Waltz distills the product of years of thinking about the "third image." He develops the distinctive concept of "international structure" as the distinguishing feature of the international political system. Structure is the minimalist device that captures the basic causal forces and variables of the international political system. Structure is made up of an organizing principle (anarchy) and the distribution of capabilities (polarity). From that, Waltz deduces many of the characteristic patterns of behavior one should find in the relations among autonomous actors. Though Waltz overlooked certain possibilities, such as unipolarity, and left much room for argument about some of his specific deductions, one cannot come away from Theory without a keen appreciation of the constraints and incentives imposed upon states by the condition of anarchy. These lead to the competitive behaviors that are so familiar.

Kenneth Waltz was one of the most influential international relations scholars of the last half-century. Even if he had produced no students, his books would stand as rocks in the road. Nobody trying to understand international politics can avoid them. But Kenneth Waltz did produce many students, who built on his work in their own scholarship, further refining the realist model. Even international relations theories based on other premises must engage with structural realism. Kenneth Waltz found what was international about international politics and built the foundations of the field.

Barry R. Posen is Ford International Professor of political science at MIT and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

Feature

The Call of the Clan

Why ancient kinship and tribal affiliation still matter in a world of global geopolitics.

What do the European sovereign debt crisis, the difficulty of building a liberal democracy in Afghanistan, and a Mexican drug cartel have in common? To begin with, all three are the predictable result of weak government institutions. On a deeper level, however, they are products of a single basic impulse: They all implicate the fundamental human drive to live under the rule of the clan. Grasping this impulse and appreciating the range of forms it takes are vital to solving a surprisingly long list of foreign-policy challenges.

So what is the rule of the clan? Ancient Highland Scotland provides a helpful example. Until well after the failed 1745 Jacobite rising, when Britain roundly defeated the cause of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," no robust public identity or state institution in the Highlands effectively superseded clans. Society was organized around kinship groups -- like the MacGregors, Macphersons, and MacDonalds, each associated with its own region -- and the ever shifting confederacies they established over centuries. Under clan rule, groups of extended families formed the basic building blocks of civic life. They remained largely autonomous from central government authority, maintaining their own law and settling disputes according to local custom.

Inseparable from this profound decentralization of authority was the clan's culture of group honor and shame. Collective honor allowed individuals to interact with outsiders -- whether for the purposes of trade, marriage, or friendship -- based on the social reputation of their kin (a stain on one Macpherson was a stain on all). This principle reinforced the autonomy of clans and strengthened their internal coherence by providing an incentive for members to keep watch over one another's behavior. Group honor and shame formed the cultural circuitry of ancient Highland Scotland's radically decentralized society -- just as it does in many parts of the developing world today (and, indeed, in some parts of the developed world as well).

Based on the biological fact of blood relatedness and the adjunct principle of "fictive kinship" -- in which a non-consanguineous group is treated "like family" -- clan rule is a natural way of organizing legal and political affairs. Certainly, it is more explicable in human terms than that most historically anomalous of institutions: the modern liberal state. Clan rule also has much to recommend it, offering its members social solidarity, a secure sense of personal identity, and a measure of social justice. Likewise, the institution of blood feud, the dispute-resolution corollary of kin honor, has delivered relative harmony for millennia -- controlling violence through its finely calibrated rules of reciprocal exchange.

Given these advantages, people who live under clan rule often -- and sensibly -- hold it in high regard, just as they rationally return to it when other social structures break down. But today, clan rule poses grave international challenges, not just in tribal societies, but in more developed nations, and even in modern liberal democracies.

In weak states such as Yemen and Somalia, the strength of tribalism -- and the sharp distinction it makes between insiders and outsiders -- often allows militants to find shelter beyond the reach of law enforcement. The distinction is all the more powerful when it maps onto religious cleavages, as it does, for example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Equally destabilizing is the increasingly potent mismatch between the tribal principle of group liability and the technology of modern warfare. Feuds between competing tribes only preserve social harmony when the reciprocal exchange of violence can be finely calibrated: a brother for a brother, a cousin for a cousin. That was possible when tribes fought with the technology of 1,000 years ago; it's inconceivable when they fight with modern automatic weapons -- making it more likely that conflicts will escalate and spiral out of control.

In addition, societies divided by tribe often struggle to construct a unifying identity under which to achieve common ends. This problem is vividly on display in the much-lamented weakness of the Afghan National Army (ANA). As Doyle Quiggle, an American professor who taught at Forward Operating Base Fenty, recently explained to me, "I eventually understood that the identity structure of the average member of the ANA might implode at any moment, due to his conflicting loyalties."

One step up the development ladder, nations that posses the outward trappings of a modern state but are still firmly in the grip of clannism -- like the Palestinian Authority or Egypt -- suffer from corruption and stifled economic development. Although they possess stronger state institutions, they nevertheless govern through informal patronage networks, especially those of kinship. President Bashar al-Assad centralized and maintained his power through such patronage in Syria. So did Yasir Arafat after his return to Palestine in 1994. Where clannism reigns, governments are co-opted for purely factional purposes, and states, conceived on the model of the patriarchal family, treat citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed. At the same time, kin-based patronage groups have the power to discipline their members in accord with their own internal rules.

Clannism is tribalism's historical shadow, shaped by the jagged contours of the developing state. It often affects rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination, as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the nuclear family, with its revolutionary, individuating power, has yet to replace the extended lineage group as the principal framework for kinship or household organization.

The social and cultural consequences of clannism are insidious. Corrupt governments regularly set factions against each other to avoid scrutiny of their own practices, and a lack of economic dynamism encourages out-migration of workers and fosters social unrest. More profoundly, in the words of the 2004 Arab Human Development Report, by "implant[ing] submission, parasitic dependence and compliance in return for protection and benefits," clannism destroys "personal independence, intellectual daring, and the flowering of a unique and authentic human entity." But clannism is not just a relic of the developing world. Modern liberal democracies can and do succumb to clan rule when their central-government institutions are weak or perceived to be illegitimate. In inner cities of the United States, for example, where the writ of the state often runs out, petty criminal gangs enforce their own social order. Likewise, in countries like Italy and Mexico, international criminal organizations and drug syndicates dictate their own internal codes of discipline and engage in intergroup behavior -- like blood feuds -- strikingly akin to that of traditional clans. Even the weakening transnational institutions of the European Union have accelerated the rise of right-wing parties, such as Greece's fascist Golden Dawn party, which claim to provide alternative social orders based on ethnicity.

And at the level of international relations, in the absence of sufficiently powerful central banking institutions, most of Europe's response to the sovereign debt crisis has had a distinctly tribal feel: a rough harmony achieved at the expense of justice on fully individualized terms -- each nation its own clan.

Clan rule requires a distinctive response in each of its manifestations, but there are also generally applicable principles for confronting it effectively and ethically. When clan rule diminishes, two aspects of a society change: its legal and political structure and its culture. Structurally, the society develops more powerful and legitimate central-governmental authority. Culturally, it develops a common public identity and a broader set of (ideally liberal) shared values. This process took place, for example, in 18th- and 19th-century Scotland under the influence of liberal writers and intellectuals like Walter Scott.

Structural change cannot be imposed from above or forced upon a society by an outside power (the latter often merely exacerbates intergroup conflict). For structural change to last, it must be perceived as legitimate -- and legitimacy requires the messy political process of compromise with the clans themselves. Governments and their international partners must work with and through clan groups and traditional institutions, such as the jirga in Afghanistan, in order to align local and national goals. This process requires a granular understanding of clan groups that may only be possessed by indigenous members of society. It also requires that central governments offer goods that are self-evidently better -- more efficient, effective, predictable, and transparent -- than those they seek to replace.

But structural change is typically impossible without pre-existing or simultaneous cultural change. Such change is typically slow to develop, but as the recent success of efforts to prevent post-election violence in Kenya demonstrate, it is possible under the right leadership, social conditions, and cultural strategies -- including the smart use of social media technology. Contrary to the widely held pessimism about "imposing democracy," moreover, cultural change can be fostered effectively -- and ethically -- from outside. Support for the middle class through trade policies, the creation of international ties between professional groups, the extension of social media to help build ties across traditional group lines, encouraging religious freedom, and international support for literature, the arts, and liberal scholarship can all accelerate the cultural modernization that is vital to structural reform.

The rule of the clan everywhere challenges liberal values. But it need not. Over time, as they did in Scotland, clans of all sorts will transform from hard political entities to soft -- if cherished -- markers of personal identity. Over a long span of history, clans will become clubs -- even in the most difficult parts of the world.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images