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Theory of International Politics

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Kenneth Waltz
Theory of International Politics
                                                                                                                                               J Priyadarshini

This paper aims on summarizing the neo-realist worker Kenneth Waltz’s book, Theory of International Politics. This book was published in 1979 against the backdrop of the cold war at its heights. Neorealism as a theory of International Relations argues in the same line as that of classical realism. But neorealism orients itself towards the systems theory and looks at power struggles as a function of the international system and not of states.  The summary will focus mainly on three of the major themes put forward by him in his book. These are- the Systematic approach, the presence of anarchy and self-help in the system and finally, the stability of the bipolar world. The paper further goes on to criticize Waltz’s work from a constructivist perspective and concludes with my personal opinions and criticisms of the same.

The Systematic Approach
Waltz begins by exploring the fundamentals of reductionist theory which would further help us to understand how systems theory in relation to reductionist theory can better explain the mechanisms in the international arena
[1].  Reductionist theory, he says deals with the various states and units as individual entities. That is to say, actions alone of states determine the international relations on the whole. Decisions taken within a national set up of a state alone affects the atmosphere that of outside the states.  However, the systems approach according to him looks at international relations from a broader perspective and as to how systems themselves are the major reason why states behave the way they do. The orientation of the international scene in a given context would urge the states to act or not to act in a particular way. For example the cold war between the US and the USSR oriented the world to live in a bipolar world. All states’ policy measures were made keeping this in mind.  In his book, The man, state and war (Published in 1954) he says, ‘States in the world are like individuals in the state of nature. They are neither perfectly good nor are they controlled by law’. In a situation where states are driven to do what they must do in order to protect themselves, it is always unknown when a stronger state might attack. Hence, Waltz says it is the picture on a whole that makes the state act in a way they should act.

The Presence of Anarchy and Self-Help
Anarchy is a state of absence of an overall authority and governing unit that makes laws, looks into the functioning of its entities and resolves disputes when they arise. Anarchy is what forms the foundation of all international relation theories (except constructivism).  Waltz attempts to give us a better understanding of anarchy by differentiating it with hierarchy
[2].  He says, units in an anarchy that exhibit similar characteristics tend to act in unison creating interdependence among each other.  Units in a hierarchy are more isolated from each other and strive for specialization. In an anarchic realm, states must do what is necessary to maintain their security and arrange themselves in accordance with the international system. According to waltz, ’Self-help is the principle of action in an anarchic order’. It is more essential for the state to defend itself from attacks and build its security than promote is good and look out for gains in the international system.  The cold war started because the US and the USSR were the only great powers left after the World War II and there was no other world order to control or restraint them. Hence, the threat of use of force is what was kept the cold war alive for forty four years.  Waltz says, states, in an attempt to protect themselves often face a prisoner’s dilemma. In such a situation, states neither acting according to their own interests nor in accordance with the other state since both ways could prove disadvantageous for them.  Also, in a self-help system as the number of parties decline the interdependent relation present also tends to become loose and the world as a whole functions more peacefully.

The Stability of a Bipolar World
Throughout the history of international politics, one can witness the trend that is followed, which moves from a multi-polar world to a bi-polar world and further to a unipolar world
[3].  According to Waltz a bipolar world is the one that maintains stability and peace in a world system.  In a multi polar world there is always an ambiguity so as to who might receive an attack from whom.  With two great powers at the international level in opposition to each other, it gives a very clear picture as to who the enemy is. As the two superpowers formed alliances with rest of states, there was a symbiotic relationship established between the allies and the superpower. While the former stood to receive gains such as protection from regional enemies and military support, allies served the latter as a ground for vital resources and territories to spy on the enemy superpower. Waltz says that the contributions of the member states are essential because military cooperation is important in a bipolar world[4]. This is the very reason why NATO and the Warsaw Pact came into being in the first place.  No matter what happens anywhere in the world system, it would be of utmost concern to both the superpowers and matters would be taken into hand. The ability of a superpower to solve a problem is what determines its positioning with respect to its counterpart. Also, a sense of self dependency is established within the two superpowers.

One of the major criticisms to neorealism comes from Alexander Wendt, a renowned political scientist who put forward the theory of social constructivism in opposition to neorealism.  According to Wendt, states have unique identities such as social, political, historical and economical that determines how a state acts in the international realm.  It is not the world system that influences the state but such components unique to each of them that does. For instance during the cold war, the US had a set of identities that differed from those of the USSR.  It was in the context of these differences that the cold war prevailed. As soon as The Soviet Union’s identity and composition began to change, the cold war ended and it changed the entire system. Waltz in explaining his systems theory looks at structures as fixed unchanging entities. Whereas Wendt’s constructivism is very much about how historical change happens over time.  He says all things and events cannot be explained by idea of struggle for power alone.  Wendt’s article,
‘Anarchy is what states make of it’ [5]puts forward the idea that it depends on the state how they understand anarchy which therefore makes it socially constructed.  The internal conditions of a state help them to understand what anarchy means to them. Waltz goes on to say, ‘Anarchy will not lead to self-help at all’. States self-help only when they look to maintain their security at all costs in a neo-realist context.  
Another criticism of Waltz’s neorealism theory comes from John Meirsheimer who was an offensive neorealist (compared to Waltz who was a defensive theorist). Both theorists believe that the world is anarchy, states form the most important units in a system, there is a constant fear of attack from other nations and security is the most essential element that every state strives to maintain. However their approach in strengthening military capability is different. According to Waltz, states increase their capability to an extent where security is ensured through moderate and diplomatic needs. This is how a balance between two superpowers in a bipolar world could be maintained. Whereas Meirsheimer stresses upon the fact that states should build up military capability to an extent where it is not possible to receive an unexpected attack from other states. He says states are rational actors unlike Waltz and it would be only wise for a state to aim to become a hegemon in the international realm in order to protect its interests. Waltz’s theory further contradicts this by saying that if one of the two superpowers aims to maximize its capability, it would lead to the disruption of the balance of power and chaos and instability would remain.

Waltz says, ‘
If we gather more and more data and establish more and more associations, however, we will not finally find that we know something. We will simply end up having more and more data and larger sets of correlations’.  International relations theorists are developing theories in order for us to understand why states behave the way they do. But no theory can be universally applied to all states and context. It is just in the backdrop of historical data that these theorists take up case studies and situations to paint a picture for future references and our easy understanding of a much larger world. Neorealism in that sense has helped us to understand a very comprehensible picture of not only the functioning of the world in a bipolar world order where a systematic approach can be applied but also in our current day running of modern governments and foreign policy measures.



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