Kenneth N. Waltz, 1924-2013

I learned this morning that Kenneth N. Waltz, who was arguably the preeminent theorist of international relations of the postwar period, had passed away at the age of 88. Ken was the author of several enduring classics of the field, including Man, the State, and War (1959), Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (1967),  and Theory of International Politics (1979).   His 1980 Adelphi Paper on nuclear proliferation ("The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better"), was also a classic, albeit a controversial one. One of his lesser achievements was chairing my dissertation committee, and he was a source of inspiration throughout my career.

I've written a tribute to Waltz's scholarship before, in the preface to a festschrift for Ken edited by Andrew Hanami.   But today I want to celebrate his role as a teacher, based on some remarks I made at the 2010 meeting of the International Studies Association, where Waltz received an award for lifetime achievement. With a few edits, here's what I said back then:

Ken Waltz is widely recognized as one of the preeminent IR scholars of the postwar period, but he was also responsible for training an impressive number of graduate students, including Barry Posen, Stephen Van Evera, Bob Powell, Avery Goldstein, Christopher Layne, Benny Miller, Karen Adams, Shibley Telhami, Jim Fearon, William Rose, Robert Gallucci, Andrew Hanami, and many others. I want to say a few words about what it was like to have him as a teacher and advisor, and why I think he was so effective at it. 

First, Ken was trained in political theory and renowned as a theorist of international relations, but he was deeply interested in real-world issues and his example showed us how theory could be used to illuminate crucial policy issues. In addition to his own theoretical work, Ken wrote about Vietnam, nuclear strategy, economic interdependence and globalization, nuclear proliferation, the U.S. defense budget, and even the Rapid Deployment Force. For those of us who were interested in international security affairs, his model was wonderfully liberating. Ken showed that you could be a theorist and a social scientist without joining the "cult of irrelevance" that afflicts so much of academia.  

Indeed, Ken's work on these topics underscored why theory is so important. Having lots of facts at one's disposal didn't help if you were thinking about those facts in the wrong way. In a world where most people think theory and practice have little in common, Ken was teaching us that they were inextricably intertwined. That's why he got a lot of things right that others got wrong. He was right about Vietnam, right about which side was winning the Cold War, right about the basic principles of nuclear deterrence, and right about the continued relevance of politics, even in the era of economic "globalization." A little theory can go a long way, and his case, it led in the right direction.

Second, Ken encouraged his students to ask big questions, largely by the force of his own example. Man, the State, and War organizes and critiques several centuries of writing on the causes of war. Theory of International Politics presents a powerful general theory explaining the behavior of self-regarding actors in anarchy. His essay on proliferation attacks the conventional wisdom with ruthless logic, just as his earlier essays on interdependence showed where liberal theories had gone off-course and why power was still central. Ken encouraged us to tackle puzzles whose answers were not immediately available and to be fearless about challenging entrenched orthodoxies.

Third, and perhaps most important, Ken held the bar high and encouraged his students to have equally high standards. The first time I laid eyes on Ken was the orientation meeting for new grad students at Berkeley in 1977. Ken was director of graduate studies that year and had to give the welcoming speech. I don't remember most of what he said, except that he emphasized that grad school took too damn long and that we should all plan on finishing in four years ... or at most five. His message was simple: "Get your coursework done, write your MA paper, pass your qualifying exams ... then write the thesis ... four years! Why wait?" The average at Berkeley in those days was more like seven or eight years, so he was raising the bar from the very start. 

I also remember my first day in Poli Sci 223, his graduate seminar in IR theory. I was already convinced that everyone else in the room knew more than I did, and Ken began by setting out his basic ideas about the field and about theory. At one point he made some critical remarks about two professors I had studied with as an undergraduate -- nothing overly disparaging, just some critical comments on their conception of theory -- which immediately made me think that not only did I know less than every one else in the room, everything I had learned up till then was wrong. The real lesson, however, was that grad school was not about learning what other people thought, it was about learning to think for yourself. And Ken gave us the freedom to do that. He never tried to force his students to agree with his views or to write books and articles designed to reinforce his own work or burnish his own reputation. 

Fourth, Ken placed great value on writing well. His students are a diverse group -- and certainly none of them are clones of Waltz himself -- but all of them are very clear writers, regardless of which methods or approaches they use. Ken used to tell us to read Fowler's Modern English Usage and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and he'd give little mini-lectures on his linguisic pet peeves in the middle of a seminar. In Waltz's view, a scholar's first duty is to make it easy for the reader to figure out what you were saying. If the reader is confused, that's probably your fault.  

This leads me to my most important encounter with him, which occurred as I was nearing the end of my dissertation. Writing a dissertation for Ken Waltz was intimidating from the start -- remember, his dissertation was Man, the State, and War -- and if you'd read that book and then read Theory of International Politics you knew you were dealing with someone with a razor-sharp ability to cut through a bloated argument and find the jugular. After two years of work I sent Ken the main analytical chapters of my thesis, and all I had left -- or so I thought -- was a short conclusion. Thinking I was nearly done, I accepted a post-doc for the following year. 

And then I got a letter back from Ken, giving his comments on the chapters I had sent him earlier that month. His letter began by declaring that he had read the first twenty-five pages with "increasing dismay." "They are terrible," he wrote, and then went on: "Ask yourself why this is so. Were you trying to write too fast, or did you just not know what you were trying to say?" He continued in this vein for a few more paragraphs, making it clear that what I had sent was -- to quote the letter again -- "nowhere near ready to be an acceptable dissertation." His bracing conclusion: "You have to face this squarely, and you are the only one who can fix these problems. So enjoy a busy summer." By the way, there was little P.S. at the end, telling me that he thought it would be an excellent thesis once I had worked out the kinks. 

I was basically curled up in a ball under my desk by the time I was finished reading this missive, and it was too early in the day to go for a stiff drink. I didn't enjoy the experience very much at the time, and you might think he was being harsh or even cruel. In fact, Ken had done me an enormous service. He was telling me that there were no short-cuts if I wanted to make a serious scholarly contribution and reminding me that hasty or poorly thought-out work deserved to be treated harshly. 

Looking back, I'm grateful that he didn't spare my feelings, and there's a lesson there for all of us. Professors aren't really helping our students when we go easy on them, and students should in fact be grateful when their advisors occasionally take them to the woodshed.

So apart from his extraordinary scholarly achievements, Ken Waltz was also an inspiring and accomplished teacher. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him, and the study of international politics is much the richer for his remarkable contributions.  

Addendum: All I would add to this today is the reminder of Waltz's deep aversion to foolish military excesses. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a realist rather than a pacifist. But like Hans Morgenthau, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and deeply skeptical of the paranoid threat-inflation that has informed so much of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Like many other realists, he also opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The field of international relations would be better off with more people like Ken, and the world would be better off if more great powers -- especially the United States -- paid more attention to his insights.


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