Summary of "Theory of International Politics"

Summary of

Theory of International Politics

by Kenneth Waltz

Summary written by Ceren Altincekic, One Earth Future

Citation: Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.

Waltz starts his work with some basic assumptions which predict certain behaviors for states. These assumptions are:

  1. The international system is anarchic: there is no higher central authority that can enforce rules over individual states.
  2. Given this context, states act on the basis of self-help: They operate with the aim of survival and their interactions with other states reflect their desire to survive.
  3. The structure only changes if great powers take actions that will lead to a change. Most states have no power to change the structure. Given this context, states will try to balance against each other because they will try to increase their chance of survival.

Balancing can take two forms: Internal and external. Internal balancing refers to the investment of military power to match up with other states. External balancing refers to the alliance of states to counter a stronger power, or a hegemon. States will choose the weaker of the available coalitions because of the understanding that the stronger side is the one threatening their security.

The structure of the system is mainly based on the distribution of power. In other words, the distribution of power is the main (and sometimes the only) determinant of international outcomes. Since states are concerned with their own security, they try to maximize their relative power with respect to other states.

Waltz’ theory is mainly a critique of “reductionist” theories which look at the behavior of the units in the system (i.e. states) to explain outcomes. Waltz claims that this approach ignores the constraints imposed on state behavior by the international environment. Moreover, there are patterns of international behavior which cannot be explained by differences at the state level. Looking at the structural level variables parsimoniously explain why “dissimilar units behave in similar ways”. The structure socializes individual states to act similarly because it constrains the menu of actions that the states can use to respond to international phenomena.

In his consideration of international institutions, Waltz emphasizes that these are not the main actors in the international system but states are still the principal decision makers. As long as this will be the case, international institutions will not have any significant effect on international outcomes.

International systems are defined with respect to the number of great powers they accommodate at a certain point in time (i.e. bipolarity, multipolarity, hegemonic system…). Although this characteristic seems to be unit level, Waltz clarifies the issue by distinguishing the distribution of power which is a structural level variable as opposed to power itself which is a state-level variable.

Waltz’ theory has been one of the most influential IR theories in the 20th century. Its parsimony and rigor has been praised by scholars and it has largely been used to explain war and peace. However, neorealism suffered from high levels of criticisms, both from within and from the liberal camp. Neo-classical realists such as Rose (1998) claimed that omitting unit-level variables significantly lowers the predictive capacity of neorealism, which is too static and cannot account for big changes in the international system such as the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union. On the other side are the neoliberals such as Keohane (1984) and Axelrod (1980) who, using the same assumptions as neorealists, come to different conclusions which are more suggestive of cooperation in international affairs. Finally, Moravcsik (1994) suggests that we need to “take preferences seriously”. By that he means that we need to look at where the preferences of states come from and then predict international behavior. All these critiques have significantly lowered the dominance of the realist paradigm in international politics. Especially the literature on international institutions looks more and more at the effects of NGOs and IGOs, finding that they matter in policy making, contrary to Waltz and his theory.