Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War, a classic book first published in 1959, has become a cornerstone in international relations theory and is widely regarded as one of the most influential works.

Waltz was a renowned American political scientist, highly regarded for his contributions to international relations. His extensive scholarship and prolific writing, which includes books such as Theory of International Politics and The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, continue to be widely read and cited today.

Through his work, Waltz provided valuable insights into the causes of war, the dynamics of the international system, and the role of nuclear weapons in international politics, thus leaving an unforgettable mark on the discipline of international relations.

Kenneth Waltz: Author of 'Man, the State, and War'
Kenneth Waltz: Author of ‘Man, the State, and War’

In this book, Waltz puts forth his theory of international politics, known as “Neo-Realism” or “Structural Realism,” which emphasizes the roles of individuals, states, and the international system in shaping the nature of war and peace.

Waltz’s work is often credited with developing the realist school of thought in international relations. His argument that international anarchy creates a self-help system among states that leads to conflict has been a key tenet of realism ever since.

Waltz’s Neo-Realism: A Theory of International Relations

Waltz asserts that the root causes of war are predominantly structural rather than individual or psychological, and states’ conduct is largely determined by their position in the international system.

Central to his argument is the concept of an anarchic international system, which lacks a central authority to impose regulations or preserve order. In such a system, states are driven to seek security by acquiring power, which can increase the likelihood of conflict.

According to Waltz, human nature is essentially fixed and unalterable, and wars result from states’ interaction with each other in the context of an anarchic international system. This perspective challenges traditional explanations that focus on individual leaders’ personalities or beliefs, instead highlighting the systemic factors that underpin conflict between states.

Anarchy, Power, and Nuclear Weapons: The Surprising Link in Understanding the Root Causes of War

The first part of the book explores the individual-level causes of war, including psychological factors such as fear and greed. Waltz states that while these factors can contribute to the outbreak of war, they are insufficient to explain the frequency and pattern of war over time. Other variables, such as the international system, exert a more substantial influence.

Likewise, the author argues that humans tend towards violence and aggression and that this tendency is not limited to individuals but extends to states as well.

In the second part, Waltz shifts his focus to the state and explores how the structure of the state affects international relations. He debates that the structure of the state is determined by its level of centralization.

He argues that the structure of a state plays a crucial role in determining its ability to engage in foreign policy and international conflict.

More centralized states tend to be better positioned to conduct effective foreign policy and mobilize resources for national defense. In contrast, states with a more decentralized and fragmented structure may struggle to pursue a consistent foreign policy, making them less competitive within the international system.

Waltz’s insights suggest that the structure of a state can significantly impact the balance of power within the international system and potentially lead to a less stable global equilibrium.

The third and final part of the book delves into the nature of war and its relationship to the international system. Waltz indicates that war is a result of the anarchic nature of the international system in which there exists no overarching authority to prevent conflict.

The book stands out for its remarkable ability to synthesize various ideas and theories into a coherent framework. It posits that anarchy within the international system is the principal cause of war. The absence of a central authority or government in the international system subjects states to constant insecurity, leading them to compete for power and security.

The level of analysis utilized plays a critical role in understanding international relations. Waltz maintains that the conduct of states can only be comprehended by examining the level of the international system rather than that of the individual or domestic realm. In other words, the structure of the international system largely determines states’ behavior.

States are rational actors that pursue their self-interest. Their motivations are driven by their quest for power and security, and they will act in their best interest to attain these objectives. Following this rationale, Waltz asserts that nuclear weapons exert a stabilizing influence on the international system. They create a deterrent effect, making states less inclined to engage in aggressive conduct.

Beyond Neorealism: Unpacking the Limitations of Waltz’s Theory and Exploring Alternative Perspectives in International Relations

Waltz’s arguments are undoubtedly insightful and thought-provoking, and they have had a significant impact on international relations. However, his emphasis on the role of the international system in shaping state behavior overlooks the crucial role of domestic factors. By excessively emphasizing the international system as the primary determinant of state behavior, Waltz fails to consider the impact of political institutions, culture, and ideology in shaping state actions.

For instance, if we talk about the Cold War, the actions of the Soviet Union cannot be explained solely by its position in the international system; domestic factors also played a significant role.

The Soviet Union was founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, and the ruling Communist Party saw its mission as spreading communist ideology worldwide. This drove the USSR’s support for communist movements and regimes worldwide and fueled its opposition to Western capitalism and imperialism.

It is difficult to explain the USSR’s actions without considering its ideology and domestic politics. Also, the Soviet Union was a one-party state, and the Communist Party controlled all aspects of political and social life. Domestic political considerations, therefore, had a major hand in shaping Soviet foreign policy.

However, some scholars point out that Soviet leaders had little choice but to pursue aggressive foreign policies, given the threat posed by the US and its allies. While this argument has some merit, it overlooks the extent to which Soviet domestic politics influenced foreign policy decision-making.

Furthermore, with regard to the author’s argument on the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons, certain flaws need to be addressed. Specifically, the potential risk of accidental nuclear war has not been considered.

While it is true that nuclear weapons have successfully deterred major wars between nuclear powers, the threat of non-state actors, such as terrorist groups obtaining and using nuclear weapons poses a significant danger to the stability of the nuclear deterrence system.

This issue was addressed in the Waltz-Sagan nuclear debate, a well-known exchange between Waltz and Scott Sagan. Waltz argued that nuclear weapons had a stabilizing effect on international relations. At the same time, Sagan challenged this assertion and argued that the risks associated with nuclear weapons, including accidental nuclear war, outweighed any stabilizing effect they might have.

Furthermore, using nuclear weapons in any capacity, even by state actors, would have severe and long-lasting consequences. The human, economic, and environmental toll of nuclear warfare would be devastating, and it is difficult to predict or control the escalation of conflict once nuclear weapons are used.

The book argues that states always act rationally to maximize their security within the international system. While this perspective may overlook the influence of emotions, biases, and human error in power politics, it is crucial to recognize that states comprise individuals liable to cognitive biases and can commit mistakes that result in irrational decision-making.

As such, it is essential to acknowledge the significance of these factors in shaping state behavior, and a failure to do so may limit our understanding of the complexities of international relations.

While Waltz’s neorealism theory contributes significantly to the study of international relations, it’s important to recognize that no single theory can fully explain all aspects of this complex field. Other theories, such as neo-classical realism, liberal institutionalism, and constructivism, offer valuable insights into factors that shape international relations.

For instance, neo-classical realism goes beyond neorealism by considering domestic factors like bureaucratic politics, public opinion, and political leadership in analyzing state behavior. Meanwhile, liberal institutionalism and constructivism emphasize international institutions, norms and values, and social constructions of identity as key factors in international relations.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of various theories can provide a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of international relations.

The Enduring Legacy of Man, the State, and War

‘Man, the State, and War’ has been a significant reference for international security scholars. The book argues that international conflict arises due to the anarchic international system and has influenced the study of international relations by providing a framework to understand conflicts like World War I, the Cold War, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Waltz’s argument about the “stability-instability paradox,” which suggests that the presence of nuclear weapons can prevent direct conflict between states while encouraging smaller, non-nuclear conflicts, has influenced the study of nuclear deterrence.

In conclusion, ‘Man, the State, and War’ is a seminal work of international relations theory that remains relevant today. Its emphasis on the rationality of states and the importance of the international system has left a lasting impact on foreign policy and global security debates.

The book’s arguments have been highly influential and continue to be debated. However, Waltz’s focus on the state and its neglect of other factors, such as the role of individuals and non-state actors, has been criticized by some scholars.

Despite these criticisms, the book is a valuable contribution to international relations. Its insights into the complex dynamics of war and peace make it a must-read for anyone interested in understanding international relations theory.

The book’s enduring relevance and continued influence demonstrate its significance as a classic work in the field.

*The opinions expressed are of the reviewer and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight or its editors. The reviewer has no personal or professional relationship with the author or publisher of the book, and no compensation was received for writing this review.