Kenneth Waltz is Pablo Picasso: A Tribute to a Guy I Never Met

The first thing I did when I saw that I had been accepted to the ISA convention was to check if Kenneth Waltz was on the program. He was and that is how I sold it to everyone around me: “I am going to the same conference as Kenneth Waltz!” But he dropped out of the program and there were some dark rumors in the corridors of the San Francisco Hilton about his health. Now, just a month after the convention, he is gone. That means that Waltz will always remain just a name in a book to me, but maybe that is the way it should be. But when it comes to the field of International Relations, Waltz is not just a name, he is THE name. Why does Waltz remain the most important and recognizable theoretician in the field?

I can remember my first encounter with Waltz quite vividly. Like most of my fellow undergraduates I had not done my assigned reading, but one of my fellow students assured me that the class on Realism was going to be great. “Those guys are so pessimistic, it is awesome.” When I first ran into Theory of International Politics, it kindled my lifelong interest in theory. It was an overarching explanation of how the world worked, full of powerful and  elegant imagery. Three simple yet evocative concepts held sway in my imagination and those of my fellow students, anarchy, self-help and structure. They were simple enough for a first year student to get their heads around and they also seemed to explain everything. Within a week of reading it I was explaining how the world worked to my bewildered friends and my bored girlfriend. Half of my undergrad class became confirmed neo-realists (especially the males) and half became opponents of neo-realism. The heated arguments in class centered on 9/11 and the Iraq War as the hapless TA tried to control the excitement.

When I first entered graduate school, he was anything but fashionable. I remember the head of the department telling us in our theory seminar that Waltz had killed all the nuance in realism. He pointed to Machiavelli and Hobbes and their natural 20th Century heirs, Morgenthau and Carr. “They understood the richness of political life”, he told us. Waltz had simplified the interaction of political units into an abstract formula which seemed ridiculous in light of the development of the European Union and globalization. This seemed to make sense at the time and I found myself distancing myself from neorealism. My studies took me into the field of ethnic conflict. This meant that every article I read and every theory I tried to formulate further broke down the state-centric approach Waltz embodied. I joined those who viewed Kenneth Waltz as a dinosaur with a useful yet ridiculously outmoded approach to theory.

The day he died, it hit me. Kenneth Waltz is our version of Pablo Picasso. The simplicity and elegance of his later models were the product of the sort of deep understanding that only the greatest master of detail and nuance could muster. If you forgive the tortured art parallel, before Picasso broke new ground in his Cubist period he mastered Modernism and Symbolism before putting these existing forms into new perspective in his Blue Period. Similarly, Kenneth Waltz taught political theory and his PhD (which became the book, Man the State and War) focused on the rich teachings of the greatest political philosophers. In examining why wars break out, he looked first at the age old argument on the nature of man. Analyzing the debate between Niebuhr and Plato and putting it into a political perspective. He then proceeds to examine the debate on the proper structure of the state and regimes and their contributions to war and peace, looking into the old claims of Kant, Hamilton and Marx. Finally, he takes the complex and misunderstood political thought of Rousseau and fashions it into a concept we take for granted: the system. Just like Picasso, even when treating the work of the masters with reverential respect, Waltz cannot avoid creating bold and new concepts. Man the State and War, gave us the material for the first class you teach in any IR theory class. By breaking down the political arguments of the classical theorists into three categories, Waltz created the much vaunted levels of analysis: individual, state and system.

But just like Pablo Ruiz, Waltz did not stop there. His next major contribution came out twenty years later (there is no way he would have gotten tenure nowadays). In Theory of International Politics Waltz created the equivalent of abstract art. Without describing reality, Waltz tried to impart a deep understanding of the structure underlying it by using symbols and mentally evocative concepts. “Anarchy” and “self-help” were powerful metaphors for the fears which underline the operation of the system and the obsession with physical security which typifies states and so mystifies peace activists and well-meaning civilians.

The end result was a huge and ambitious canvass which inspired and essentially spawned the modern discipline. It did so in two ways, first of all by the previously mentioned appeal of the overarching explanation and the evocative language of neorealism. Second, and more importantly, just like abstract art or jazz: the missing details or the notes which are not played are the key to inspiration. I would argue that just about all of the important works of the decade following Theory of International Politics were based on an attempt to play those absent notes and fill in those blank portions of the canvass. Keohane asked, what the role of institutions and incentives in promoting cooperation? Jervis asked what about the interdependence created by trade? Wendt asked, what about the meaning we invest in the concept of anarchy? Cox asked, what about the normative assumptions inherent to this invention of structure? All of these scholars challenged various assumptions, while paying tribute to the way Waltz stimulated their imagination by writing nuanced critiques which built both their reputations and the robust and pluralistic discipline we see today. Would so many thousands have flocked to San Francisco for the ISA Convention this year if it had not been for the genius of Kenneth Waltz? Personally, I think not.

I have now been working as a lecturer or teaching assistant for six years. Just last semester we discussed anarchy. In one class, I was explaining the different angles and criticizing Waltz’s conception of anarchy using both Archer and Wendt. A heartbroken student raised his hand and said, with deep pathos, “are you saying Waltz is wrong?” The cycle continues. 

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim, PhD Candidate


This blog post is done*

I recently finished my thesis.

If my wife were reading this, she’d probably break into gales of laughter. “I’ve finished my thesis” is a statement I made a good dozen times over the last month of the slog towards final submission. “It’s done.”

Well, it was done. Then it was done again. But this time it’s really done. I mean, sure, I’ve got a few more sources coming in through interlibrary loan, but I mean other than that it’s pretty much done. I’ll probably take another editing pass or two at it, but that won’t change much I’m sure.

There’s the “I’ve finished primary writing” done. Then there’s the “I finished the editing” done. Then there’s the “I sent the draft of the final off to my advisor done”, quickly followed by “yes I made all the bloody edits” done. But then you’re done.

Of course, after that it’s time to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous defense panels, and the post-defense edits that almost inevitably follow. And the wrangling over the little things you largely ignored that you didn’t consider important until then, like your dedications (“what do you mean I can’t dedicate my thesis to Slayer?”).

Best graffiti ever.

Best graffiti ever.

It’s not until you finally hit “Enter” on that electronic repository submission that you’re well and truly done.  But a thesis is just such a beast that you’re interested in declaring it dead as soon as possible. And, just like victims in a horror movie, grad students tend to say “this time it’s dead for sure” far too early, usually getting dismembered by their advisors’ chainsaw for their troubles. And then the thesis returns for Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Thesis Part 2: The Reckoning.

Keith Hann, MSS