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Sun. February 05, 2023
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

High Time to Revisit Kenneth Waltz Ideas


Kenneth Waltz's 'The Emerging Structure of International Politics' underpins his place as the most significant International Relations thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, according to Mearsheimer. His influential thoughts reverberate across the century in order to grasp and expound on the issue of international relations during the Cold War, leaving a lasting influence. A theory, according to Waltz, is a simplified version of reality that explains laws rather than an actual representation of it. It can, however, be disproved if a better theory outperforms it and it is no longer deemed helpful. I propose to examine his key concepts of International Relations and its relevance in twenty-first century based on the assumptions stated above.

The ontology of international relations in ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics' is a structure made up of organising principles. The structure is determined by the distribution of capabilities among units under the anarchic framework of Cold War International Politics. As a result, comprehending Waltz's analysis of the Cold War is critical. This essay follows a logical flow of thought that includes a critical assessment of Kenneth Waltz's understanding of the Cold War and whether Anarchy is a natural or artificial construct of superpowers, as well as a Structural-centric approach and whether structure is the sole deciding factor in state behavior, followed by a conclusion.

Comprehending Cold war

The wartime alliances disintegrated as soon as World War II ended. The United States and the Soviet Union entered into a Cold War solely on ideological grounds. Capitalism's ideology pervaded the Western world, whereas communism's thought pervaded the Soviet Union. Initially fuelled by ideological disagreements, both blocs began to influence and bring additional nations into their fold. Most of these countries achieved independence from Western empires and were hesitant to join the bloc because they feared it would jeopardize their freedom. Some of these nations eventually formed a bloc known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Following the failings of the League of Nations, the United Nations was created in 1945. The UN was made more accommodating and was built on universal principles of Justice, Equality, and Human Rights. Over time, the ideological fight between the US and the USSR got fiercer, and the rush to acquire more and more territory on the globe map finally led to the emergence of hostility and suspicion about each other's actions. This resulted in a sense of insecurity. This sense of insecurity led to the creation of another pillar of the cold war, military combat, and the rush to amass conventional weapons as well as nuclear weapons stockpiles. So, the Cold War (Strategic War based on escalating Fear of Insecurity) was built on three tensions: To begin, there is an ideological conflict. The second source of contention is economic insecurity. The third source of tension is nuclear power. This is, not by chance, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Kenneth Waltz's works in the twilight years of the USSR, beginning in 1988, showed consistency US as a winning force in the superpower rivalry—the end of bipolarity and the Cold War. However, by the 1990s, several other prospective great powers had obtained nuclear capability, including China and numerous other non-state entities that practised communism or were not capitalists in the strictest sense.

The actors and techniques, according to Simon Sinek, have changed since the turn of the century, but the underlying essential principles of the Cold War — mistrust, cynicism, and suspicion – have remained the same or gotten worse.

Kenneth Waltz's interpretation of the United States as a Hercules is a mockery, and the Cold War has not ended, but it has led to the collapse of one participant, only to give birth to multiple in its place. In that sense, the world has become a more dangerous place than it was in the second half of the twentieth century, since the Cold War has turned into a hydra, and the United States has yet to become a Hercules. To put it simply, the three Cold War tensions remain, albeit in different shapes and proportions, and have emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Ideological conflicts remain in the form of communism from China and extremist Islamism from the recent advent of the Taliban, endangering the region's security balance, Iran, and other Islamic Republics. The economic danger is dominating and visible as a result of the long-running trade war and protectionist policies of the United States against China and India, and correctly pointed out by Kenneth Waltz of Japan and Germany. Nuclear tensions have only grown over time, with China, North Korea, and Iran, as well as a number of non-state entities, all threatening to use nuclear weapons. Satellite photos show China building 100 nuclear silos, reviving the world's nuclear arms race. To restate, the basic principles of Cold War - cynicism, scepticism, and suspicion - have ran deeper and deeper only if Waltz had been living to experience it in 2021.

So, it's reasonable to conclude that Waltz was eager to establish the United States as the king of the jungle and the sole ennobler in charge of establishing and maintaining the World Order. Little did he realize the US was waging a mind-war with a finite player before 1990s that is with USSR alone. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is now forced to fight numerous fights against various opponents on multiple fronts. The task has become more arduous than ever before. Furthermore, it has just been three decades since the fall of the USSR, and the US has a formidable rival to challenge his superpower status with huge military backing as well as good forex (certainly learned from the past) with the same ideological family of communist. With a brief pause, the globe appears to be reverting to bipolarity, and if this occurs, history will not be kind enough to repeat itself.

Structural Analysis of International Politics

The behavior of a state, according to Waltz, is determined by its position in the international political structure. In a condition of anarchy in international relations, states are undifferentiated functional units whose main goal is to preserve national sovereignty and security in the face of external threats. When there is a hierarchy, however, units naturally fall into their places of functional differentiation. As a result, it is reasonable to infer those states differ in terms of their capacities, and one thing we can all agree on is that states have distinct internal political structures.

Waltz proposed that structural change begins in a systems unit and then unit level and structural causes interact. He does not take the internal political systems of nations, whether democrats or authoritarians, socialists, liberals, or conservatives, seriously. States must conform to the requirements of the International System framework, regardless of their political beliefs. As a corollary, international anarchy designates a distinct autonomous domain for the internal political systems of states.

Waltz's view of international politics has two major weaknesses. First, he stresses the anarchic condition of international relations as a driving force in state behavior. Second, he ignores the significance that a country's domestic political structure plays on its placement in the international framework.

As World War II came to a conclusion, key powers established the United Nations. According to Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, the UN's mission is not to shepherd humanity to heaven, but to save it from falling into hell. In contrast to its birth, the globe appeared to have been divided into two blocs: capitalism and communist. The foreign policies of these two blocs were clear: to expand their ideological wing as far as possible and consequently, they adopted an interventionist approach. This interventionist strategy would not have succeeded in defining the international order in the presence of a powerful World Organization - the UN -, which would have enforced adherence to the principles of supremacy of the law, equality before the law, and accountability to the law. So, the US was clear on one point: it did not want to enhance the UN and instead wanted to keep it under its control.

On the other hand, these two giants may have allocated enough money, personnel, and technology to make the UN a powerful body capable of acting as a super government based on international conventions and regulations in order to chokehold hostile states. The inability of superpowers to learn from the League of Nations' failures cast doubt on their motivation and what they hoped to achieve by keeping the UN weak. Hence, there is no global government. As a result, the UN was accused of acting as an extension of the White House, resulting in a loss of credibility. This at least establishes that the UN was purposefully designed to be weak in order to preserve the world from eternal damnation rather than to shepherd people to heaven. The emergence of the Taliban and their atrocities against innocent men, women, and children calls the UN's legitimacy into question.

Unless the Great Powers had intended to form a body strong enough to adjudicate international conflicts, world politics would not have been in a state of chaos and would have been mostly peaceful. In an anarchical world, the two Superpowers found it easier to conduct their foreign policies of meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries than in a rule-based international order. Because no initiative has been taken to liberate the world from the anarchical state of affairs, I would argue that anarchy in international politics is more of an effective and powerful ideological institution that carries out system-supported propaganda of the superpowers by instilling a sense of insecurity among nations, particularly weak nations born out of the wave of democratization. Waltz's description of anarchy in international politics appears to be more of a license for the US to meddle in the internal affairs of nations, either to build democracy or to save them from the Soviet menace, i.e., for the ennobling job of sustaining peace and world being. Anarchy has also served as a pretext for the United States to become deeply involved in the internal politics of the Middle East. The preceding debate makes one thing very clear: anarchy is a desire on the part of superpowers to make things appear uncertain and unpredictable. This seeming turmoil would cause states to flee to the superpower blocs for safety, peace, and prosperity, which would in turn give access to markets and territory.

The presence of anarchy in international politics is a decision made by superpowers. It is not a goal in itself, but rather a means to an end - of economic motivation & ambition to influence international affairs. It’s a man-made disaster and a blot on its rationality and faculty of thoughts.

Importance of Domestic Politics in International Arena

Waltz pays less attention to a state's domestic political system, overlooking its effect on a state's location in the international framework and, thus, its behaviou. This view of state behavior has an inherent defect.

Take, for example, the United States, which is now a superpower, and its behavior reflects that. Apart from the modern worldview, political, and economic competitiveness, the underlying values, ethos, and working principles have made the United States what it is today. Domestic culte provides the necessary strength for the United States to stand steady and traverse the world in an open sea. The reputation, emblems, and power that the United States has are not a favor from nations across the world on the international stage, but rather a belief in its efficacy and strength, whether military, economic, or technological. There are more buyers of the United States' ideals and belief system - justice, liberty, freedom, and gender equality - and therefore it is viewed as a role model for nations to follow in its footsteps. The internal political setup, disciplined public, cultal element, and general growth that emerged from the formation of democratic culture are what distinguishes the United States as a superpower.

Similarly, when I argue about India and her behavior, I see more of a reflection of domestic cultural norms affecting her behavior on the world stage than the framework of international politics moulding it. Nehru's slogan of Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai and granting a seat to China on the United Nations Security Council, for example, demonstrates India's idealism back then. India's open support for France and Israel in the fight against Islamic extremism, as well as its eulogy for the Balakot Air Strike and the Galwan head-on clash with China, reflect its shifting stance from idealism to realism from within, rather than a change in international dynamics causing a change in India's behavior.

China aspires to be a powerhouse and a possible challenger to the United States in the twenty-first century, and its behavior on the international stage is shaped not just by the international framework, but also by voices from within China of rejuvenation and unification based on Middle Kingdom theory. For instance, China is aggressively increasing its defence budget in accordance with Xi's vision to project China as a military hegemon, which goes hand in hand with its rise as an economic and technological powerhouse, with forex crossing $4 trillion, China is well positioned to misbehave in international politics.

China's planned misadventures in Pakistan, Iran, and now Afghanistan are the consequence of both international and domestic politics dictating its behavior, not only international structure. China's route to global supremacy passes through its Asian dream. It is the century of humiliation, cultural revolution, domestic setup, its foundational ethos, over ambitious and refined vision of leaders that provides the physical and mental strength to nation and people to position themselves strongly in international politics and influence the structure through their behavior.

According to Gorbachev, the demise of the USSR was caused by the country's deteriorating economic position rather than by foreign factors alone. The USSR's first-rate military apparatus could not be supported by a third-rate economy. The weakening of the economy also resulted in loosening of its allies, eventually leading to disintegration. As a result, internal dynamics - a weakening of the economy, a drop in people's morale, and a loss of trust in the government - set off a chain reaction. These internal dynamics led to a shift in the USSR's posture on the international stage in relation to the US. In international politics, the prime most factor that would determine States behavior is its domestic strength as the saying goes by - the power comes from within. The International Structure is secondary, although it is not to be ignored.

To some extent, Kenneth Waltz was correct in his works that the structure of international politics determines state behavior; nevertheless, Waltz did not explain clearly “what type of states,” that is, the features of these states, because not all nations are the same. In the most basic categorization, there are weak and strong states. Because a weak state's domestic political affairs are very unstable and susceptible to outside influence, these nations are incapable of directing an autonomous foreign policy and, as a result, exhibit behavior consistent with their position in the dynamics of the international political structure. For instance, if Syria wishes to put an end to the turmoil that has erupted within its borders, Syria cannot accomplish so on its own for the reasons you can see from above.

In the case of strong states, Waltz's argument of changing state behavior in response to changes in the structure of international politics may not hold true, because strong states may or may not yield to changing dynamics in international politics and stick to their aspirations and objectives in the arena of world politics. For example, China will not abandon its goal of becoming a superpower, regardless of how world politics alter over time. Germany and Japan are still looking for ways to avoid acquiring nuclear weapons. As a result, China will continue to make inroads in areas where the US will create a power vacuum.

As a result, one's position in the structure of international politics is determined by the strength of one's foreign policy, which is supported by strong domestic values in terms of economic, political, and cultural values, and one's behavior is accordingly, without denying that international politics influences it to some extent.

Thus, one's position in the structure of international politics is determined by the strength of one's foreign policy, which is supported by strong domestic values in terms of economic, political, and cultural values, and one's behavior is accordingly, without denying that international politics influences it to some extent.


Waltz saw anarchy as a sickness afflicting state behavior in the international arena, but he did not go beyond that to determine if anarchy was a natural occurrence or an artificial invention of the superpower. Whether weakening of anarchy in conjunction with UN strengthening would have resulted in better global peace outcomes, or whether strengthening anarchy would have resulted in the intended outcomes of superpower foreign policymakers at the time.

The shrinking space that Waltz has provided for domestic political setups in determining the behavior and positioning of states in the structure of international politics is undermining the impact that domestic stability, economic strength, and military capabilities a state carries with it as a prestige when voicing its concerns on international platforms. This may be explained by Germany, India, and Brazil, with their growing international influence supported by substantial home power, advocating for a seat on the UN Security Council and numerous other reforms in international financial and security systems.


Amit Kumar is a Ph.D. Research Scholar at BITS PILANI, INDIA. His primary research interests are on China's engagement with Islam and Islamic countries.

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