There is much to learn from his exposition of realism, his lasting legacy to international relations theory, and its limitations.
I spent nearly a year as a student at a pre-eminent school of international relations before I realised I had come across little of Kenneth Waltz’s scholarship. In fact, I had studiously avoided being exposed to it. To me, this was a fair bargain since Professor Waltz had, for the most part of his life, steered clear of research in international law and organisations, which I was interested in. But in keeping away, I had merely reinforced a worrying trend in the graduate study of political science, where the application of theoretical concepts has been neatly stored in silos. I was more than happy to perpetuate this division because my indifference to Waltz was borne out of righteous self-indignation, and more importantly, fear.
On the one hand, this prodigious scholar, from his perch at Columbia University, had spawned a post-war literature that reinvigorated the dismal notion of realism. Kenneth Waltz’s first book — his doctoral dissertation — was to the field of international relations what Helen’s face was to the Trojan War. This meant the rest of us, who spent our energies on norms, cooperation and the persuasive force of morality in international affairs, had to live under his shadow — our work doomed to oblivion as “idealistic” and thus ‘un’real.
On the other, here was a theorist whose writings shone through with a conviction rarely seen in the social sciences. His prose was eminently readable and his argumentation of razor-sharp clarity. He read The New York Times and recommended it to his students over peer-reviewed journals, rendering him a formidable threat to anyone in academia. Reading him, I was convinced, could fatally damage the woolly foundations upon which my brief stay in the ivory tower rested.
More so, because Waltz’s substantive claims were compelling and often irrefutable. The concept of neorealism, developed in his classic 1979 work, Theory of International Politics, continues to have an enormous impact in the study of international relations the world over. He articulated a view of the international system where states were the most important actors, each constantly vying to triumph over another. Their pursuit of national interests would be driven by rational agency and the imperative to survive. Cooperation and interdependence among countries was a mirage, he argued, merely reflecting the structural limits imposed by a deeply hierarchical order. Left to fend for themselves in an anarchic set-up, nations would aim for a “balance of power” which dictated their conduct and diplomacy...
...All differences aside, there is no doubt that students, teachers and policymakers are left poorer in the wake of this giant’s passing. Kenneth Waltz, a prolific scholar, committed teacher and profound thinker in the field of international relations, passed away on May 12 in New York last week. He was 88, and kept things real.
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