Theory of International Politics
By Kenneth Waltz
In “Theory of International Politics,” Kenneth Waltz begins by discussing how to construct a good theory and providing definitions of some of the component parts. He then creates his own systemic theory of international politics based on the balance of power, and applies it.
Chapter 1 – Laws and Theories
Laws establish relations between variables. They are of the form: “if a then b with probability x.” Theories are collections of laws pertaining to a particular behavior or phenomenon – they explain laws and are not obvious from laws. You can’t just get the answer by looking at all of the data. Statistics don’t explain why things are related – that’s why we need theories.
Chapter 2 – Reductionist Theories
Theories can be reductionist or systemic. Reductionist theories concentrate causes at the individual or national level. They assume the whole can be understood by understanding all of its parts. Systemic theories conceive of causes operating at the international level. They believe that internal explanations alone cannot explain how states choose to act – external conditions matter.
Waltz describes some existing reductionist theories, including those that attempt to relate imperialism, capitalism, and war. However, he believes these do not adequately explain past events or predict future ones. Theories are manipulated by broadening the meaning of definitions to fit new events or by making exceptions based on variables outside the theory. He concludes that reductionist theories have failed so far in explaining international politics.
Chapter 3 - Systemic Approaches and Theories
Systems-level forces seem to be at work in international politics – outcomes are affected not only by the properties and interconnections of variables, but also the way they are organized. Some existing system theories are not theories because they just organize thoughts and don’t explain them, or because they incorporate non-system-level items, such as internal characteristics of states. He argues that the current balance of power theory does not adequately describe international politics – it has loose language and is not clear when different types of power distributions take place.
Chapter 4 – Reductionist and Systemic Theories
This chapter includes more discussion of defects of current reductionist and systemic theories – generally that they don’t have explanatory power, or they allow too many details into the discussion – allowing exceptions to be made. Often they are organizations of thoughts – structures for thinking – rather than theories.
Chapter 5 – Political Structures
Waltz showed previously that international political outcomes cannot be explained reductively, and that current systemic approaches confuse system-level and unit-level causes. International politics must be a domain separate from social, economic, and other domains. Domestic political structure is defined by three things: 1) the principle by which it is ordered, 2) the specifications of the functions formally differentiated units, and 3) by the distribution of capabilities across those units. He gives the example of how character of the prime minister is different than the character of the president because of the different systems in the U.S. and U.K. The president is elected as an individual, but has less power once in his position. The Prime Minister has a lot of power, but comes to power based on moving up slowly through the ranks of government and generally being a person known for compromise that keeps the party united.
In a systemic theory of international politics, states are the relevant units – the international system is decentralized and anarchic. States are not differentiated by the functions they perform – they are like units (similar to markets being defined in terms of firms – international political structure in terms of states). The units of such an order are distinguished primarily by their greater or lesser capabilities for performing similar tasks.
Chapter 6 – Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power
Waltz first explains how hierarchic and anarchic orders are different. In hierarchic orders (within states) government has monopoly over legitimate force, while in anarchic orders, states are in a self-help system. Within states, groups can specialize and benefit from trade. Among states, nations wish to remain loosely connected and not overly dependent on other states. Also, within a global system, each state, acting in their own interest, can lead to outcomes that none wanted – similar to a run on the bank in economics.
Balance of power theory is a theory about the results produced by the uncoordinated actions of states. Assumptions are made about the interests and motives of states (it does not explain them). It explains the constraints that confine all states. Balance-of-power theory can explain why a certain similarity of behavior is expected from similarly situated states. The theory leads us to suspect that states behave in ways that result in balances forming. (This is in contrast to behavior such as band-wagoning – all jumping to the winners side.) It predicts that states will engage in balancing behavior, whether or not balancing is the end of their acts. The theory predicts a strong tendency of balance in the system – not that balance, once achieved, will be maintained, but that balance, once disrupted, will be restored in one way or another. Suggests that states will be competitive and will imitate each other to become more successful.
Chapter 7 – Structural Causes and Economic Effects
Capabilities of states depend on how they score on size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capabilities, military strength, political stability, and competence. Though there may be many states in the international system, international politics can be understood simply by studying the most prominent. (Similar to the study of oligopolistic systems in economics, in which industries with many firms can still be best understood by looking at most prominent of them.)
In this chapter, Waltz shows that smaller number of prominent states in the system is better – systems are most stable when barriers to entry are high (fewer, bigger firms). The costs of bargaining are lower with less units involved – less diversity in participants makes reaching agreements easier, and members have a greater stake in the system and more incentive to invest in enforcing agreements.
The idea that the world is becoming more interdependent and that this leads to peace is a myth. Interdependence should be understood as sensitivity to other states or vulnerability to other states – asking whether they are actually dependent on each other, rather than just one being dependent on the other. Interdependence actually decreases as the number of states decrease – large, powerful states are more self-sufficient.
Chapter 8 – Structural Causes and Military Effects
A two-state system will be the most stable. With only two powers acting on a world scale, anything that happens anywhere is potentially of concern to both of them – no unexpected events coming from an ignored region. With only two powers, miscalculation is less likely. Nuclear forces should not be discounted just because states don’t use them – the fact that violence does not need to be used shows that they are able to protect their interests in other ways.
Chapter 9 – The Management of International Affairs
Power does not bring control over the international system, but it does four things: 1) Power provides the means of maintaining one’s autonomy in the face of force that other wield. 2) Greater power permits wider ranges of action, while leaving the outcomes of action uncertain. 3) The powerful enjoy wider margins of safety in dealing with the less powerful and have more to say about what games will be played and how. 4) Great power gives its possessors a big stake in their system and the ability to act for its sake. In a bipolar world, there will be more effort at management of the system.