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.