I am usually loath to out myself as an admirer of Waltzian structuralism. However, if there is one thing that even Kenneth Waltz’s most acerbic critics can admire about the legacy he left when he passed away on May 13th, it’s having written a book that others never tire of criticizing. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics replaced Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations as the foundational text within the American field of International Relations (IR). Waltz’s obituary in the New York Times does an excellent job of describing the substantive contribution of his text to the field of IR. However, the staying power of his book is found in its particular combination of substance and style. As Waltz himself explains, his theory derives its power from its elegance.
Back when I was in grad school at Chicago, Bob Pape taught the ‘Intro to IR Theory’ seminar for graduate students. That was the course in which we read Waltz’s Theory of International Politics as well as the edited volume in which the responses to it were collected, Neorealism and Its Critics. What I remember from that course is how Bob delighted in Waltz’s rhetoric. In Waltz’s theory, states interact as if they are firms competing in a market. His primary contention is that this competitive space is governed only by the potential or actual use of military force. Therefore, the only factors that should be considered relevant to the explanation of state behavior are those which contribute in measurable ways to military capabilities. These capabilities are what determine the balance of power. All other factors that differentiate states qualitatively such as regime type (ie democracies versus authoritarian regimes), or qualities of individual leaders (ie charisma) are “reductive.” They dip inside the black box of the state to a lower level of analysis. These lower levels were messy and complex. They increased the descriptive quality of the theory, but reduced its “explanatory power.” Powerful theories are “elegant.” This is what Bob loved. He chuckled as he explained how no one wanted to be accused of being “reductive” or working at a “lower level.”
The irony, of course, is that the most damning critique of Waltz’s work in the accompanying edited volume came from Richard Ashley, who accused Waltz of a brand of reductivism all his own. Where Waltz saw elegance and simplicity, Ashley saw an impoverished depiction of a rational international system from which all political practice had been eliminated. Ashley’s work points towards the potential for another type of critical social theory, one which does not treat power as if it were an object that could be measured and weighed, but rather as a practice.
More than three decades later–after institutions and norms and the ‘tragedy of great power politics’–Waltz’s grand theory of international politics has yet to be displaced the way that Waltz displaced his predecessor. (Wendt’s contribution to this debate is best left for another post). I find myself repeating Ashley’s critique of Waltz, trying to find a way to make the charge of reductivism stick to its proper target. Escaping from the apolitical system of Waltz’s neorealist thought is one of the primary purposes of Nuclear Philosophy as an intellectual project, which is perhaps the highest compliment I could offer, barring the admission of my weakness for elegant theory.