Kenneth N. Waltz

Waveland Press


Theory of International Politics


Kenneth Waltz is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at UC Berkley and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia.  He was formerly the President of the American Political Science Society.  Waltz commenced his undergraduate studies in mathematics but transferred to economics.  When he progressed to graduate school he commenced studying economics and then switched to political science, earning his PhD from Columbia.

Waltz has written widely.  He is considered to be the farther of neo-realism, otherwise known as structural realism.


TIP was written after the Vietnam War, but when the Cold War was at its height.  It is the cornerstone book on neo-realism, though the role that the structure of the international system plays in shaping international relations was discussed in his 1959 book Man, the State, and War.  Waltz states that the aim of TIP is:

I write this book with three aims in mind: first, to examine theories of inter-national politics and approaches to the subject matter that make some claim to being theoretically important; second, to construct a theory of international politics that remedies the defects of present theories; and third, to examine some applications of the theory constructed.  (p.1)

This book sets him apart from classical realists such as Carr who focused on the actions of the states themselves.


Waltz begins by outlining what he believes a theory is, how it is constructed and how it is tested.  He then proceeds to discuss what he terms “reductionist” theories.  These types of theories attempt to explain international politics through an examination of the “elements and the combination of elements.” (p.60)  After identifying the flaws in the reductionism, by which he means classical realism, he then presents a theory of international politics that focuses on the political structure of the international system.  A sub-theory within his theory is that of balance-of-power.  This he explains and ties into the structure of international politics.  He concludes with an examination of how economics and military power affect international politics. 

There is a very heavy focus on the bipolarity of the international system that defined the Cold War.  He pays particular focus to how the United States functions within this system.

Central Proposition

Waltz’s central proposition is that international politics can be explained by reference to the structure of the system in which states, as the unit of analysis, operate.  The focus of the structuralist theory presented by Waltz is not how the states relate to one another, but “how they stand in relation to one another.” (p.79) In the international system, this structure is an anarchic one in which there is not supernational body and empowered with the authority and ability to impose an order on the interactions between states.

In an anarchic system, states operate on a self-help principle, meaning that states must do what they can for themselves in order to survive and prosper within the international system.  Those states that are able to and actually do conform to accepted and successful practices as defined by the structure will rise to the top.  (p.92)

National politics is the realm of authority, of administration, and of law. International politics is the realm of power, of struggle, and of accommodation.  (p.113)

One cannot infer the condition of international politics from the internal composition of states, nor can one arrive at an understanding of international politics by summing the foreign policies and the external behaviors of states.  (p.64)

A systems theory of international politics deals with the forces that are in play at the international, and not at the national, level.  (p.71)

A structure is defined by the arrangement of its parts. Only changes of arrangement are structural changes. A system is composed of a structure and of interacting parts. Both the structure and the parts are concepts, related to, but not identical with, real agents and agencies.  (p.80)

Structure defines the arrangement, or the ordering, of the parts of a system. Structure is not a collection of political institutions but rather the arrangement of them.  (p.81)

Domestic systems are centralized and hierarchic. The parts of international-political sys- terns stand in relations of coordination. Formally, each is the equal of all the others. None is entitled to command; none is required to obey. International systems are decentralized and anarchic.  (p.88)

Out of the interactions of their parts [international-political systems] develop structures that reward or punish behavior that conforms more or less nearly to what is required of one who wishes to succeed in the system.  (p.92)

In defining international-political structures we take states with whatever traditions, habits, objectives, desires, and forms of government they may have. We do not ask whether states are revolutionary or legitimate, authoritarian or democratic, ideological or pragmatic. We abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities. Nor in thinking about structure do we ask about the relations of states—their feelings of friendship and hostility, their diplomatic exchanges, the alliances they form, and the extent of the contacts and exchanges among them. We ask what range of expectations arises merely from looking at the type of order that prevails among them and at the distribution of capabilities within that order. We abstract from any particular qualities of states and from all of their concrete connections. What emerges is a positional picture, a general description of the ordered overall arrangement of a society written in terms of the placement of units rather than in terms of their qualities.  (p.99)

A three-part definition of structure enables one to discriminate between those types of changes:

  Structures are defined, first, according to the principle by which a system is ordered. Systems are transformed if one ordering principle replaces another. To move from an anarchic to a hierarchic realm is to move from one system to another.

  Structures are defined, second, by the specification of functions of differentiated units. Hierarchic systems change if functions are differently defined and allotted. For anarchic systems, the criterion of systems change derived from the second part of the definition drops out since the system is composed of like units.

  Structures are defined, third, by the distribution of capabilities across units. Changes in this distribution are changes of system whether the system be an anarchic or a hierarchic one.  (pp.100-101)

In relation to the issue of structure above.  The first part of the definition establishes the international system as anarchic.  This precludes the second, as they are arranged in a self-help system, they do not specialise but rather seek to maintain independence and remain, to a large extent, like units. The defining feature of the structure is, therefore, the distribution of capabilities, which in this context refers to the distribution of power.

Structures may be changed, as just mentioned, by changing the distribution of capabilities across units. Structures may also be changed by imposing requirements where previously people had to decide for themselves.  (p.108)

Anarchy is seen as one end of a continuum whose other end is marked by the presence of a legitimate and competent government.  (p.114)

Supporting Propositions

The following propositions support Waltz’s theory:

  A theory explains laws. It reflects a reality not the reality.

  There is a difference between a theory of international politics and a theory of foreign policy.

  Bipolarity is more stable than multipolarity in the international system.

  Power is indivisible and must be understood as a whole.

  The focus of states in an anarchic system is security, not power maximization.

  Power is not about control, it is about security, and freedom of action.

  Non-state and transnational actors play a role, but not the major role, in international politics.

Theory explains reality

Waltz spends the first chapter of TP outlining the role of a theory and how it is developed.  Central to this is the belief that the theory’s usefulness is determined by its ability to explain the laws.  It incorporates theoretical notions which do not need to comply with truth, but are instead intended to provide and enhance a theories explanatory power. 

Laws establish relations between variables, variables being concepts that can take different values. If a, then b, where a stands for one or more independent variables and b stands for the dependent variable: In form, this is the statement of a law.  … A law is based not simply on a relation that has been found, but on one that has been found repeatedly.  (p.1)

Rather than being mere collections of laws, theories are statements that explain them. … Laws identify invariant or probable associations. Theories show why those associations obtain.  (p.5)

A theoretical notion may be a concept, such as force, or an assumption, such as the assumption that mass concentrates at a point. A theoretical notion does not explain or predict anything.  (p.5)

A theory is not the occurrences seen and the associations recorded, but is instead the explanation of them.  (p.9)

International political theory vs Foreign policy theory

Waltz argues that reductionist theories that are focused on the actions or states themselves, such as represented in Allison and Zelikow’s Models two and three, are theories of foreign policy. Only if you are looking at the way in which the states stand in relation to each other do you arrive at a theory of international politics.

One cannot infer the condition of international politics from the internal composition of states, nor can one arrive at an understanding of international politics by summing the foreign policies and the external behaviors of states.(p.64)

For those who deny the distinction, for those who devise explanations that are entirely in terms of interacting units, explanations of international politics are explanations of foreign policy, and explanations of foreign policy are explanations of international politics.  Others mix their explanatory claims and confuse the problem of understanding international politics with the problem of understanding foreign policy.  (p.122)

Graham Allison betrays a similar confusion. His three "models” purport to offer alternative approaches to the study of international politics. Only model I, however, is an approach to the study of international politics. Models II and III are approaches to the study of foreign policy.  (p.122)

Bipolarity is more stable than multipolarity

Waltz argues that bipolarity provides for greater stability than multi-polarity. This is due to the fact that interdependence decreases with the number of major players in the international system.   As interdependence can also be regarded a mutual vulnerability.  If a state is dependent on another, they will do all they can to assure themselves that they retain access to that commodity or product, if you are not dependent, then there is an increased sense of security and therefore greater stability.

States that import and export 15 percent or more of their gross national products yearly, as most of the great powers did then and as most of the middle and smaller powers do now, depend heavily on having reliable access to markets outside their borders. Two or more parties involved in such relations are interdependent in the sense of being mutually vulnerable to the disruption of their exchanges. Sensitivity is a different matter.  (p.142)

The structure of a system changes with changes in the distribution of capabilities across the system's units. As international structure changes, so does the extent of interdependence. As political systems go, the international-political one is loosely knit.  (p.144)

Interdependence tends to decrease as the number of great powers diminishes; and two is the lowest possible number.  (p.145)

Countries that are highly dependent, countries that get much of what they badly need from a few possibly unreliable suppliers, must do all they can to increase the chances that they will keep getting it. The weak, lacking leverage, can plead their cause or panic. Most of the countries in question unsurprisingly did a little of each.  (p.153)

With only two great powers, a balance-of-power system is unstable; four powers are required for its proper functioning. For ease and nicety of adjustment a fifth power, serving as balancer, adds a further refinement.  (p.163)

So long as the system is one of fairly small numbers, the actions of any of them may threaten the security of others. There are too many to enable anyone to see for sure what is happening, and too few to make what is happening a matter of indifference.  (p.168)

In a bipolar world there are no peripheries. With only two powers capable of acting on a world scale, anything that happens anywhere is potentially of concern to both of them. Bipolarity extends the geographic scope of both powers' concern.   (p.171)

A system of two has unique properties. Tension in the system is high because each can do so much for and to the other. But because no appeal can be made to third parties, pressure to moderate behavior is heavy. Bargaining among more than two parties is difficult. Bargainers worry about the points at issue. With more than two parties, each also worries about how the strength of his position will be affected by combinations he and others may make.  (p.174)

Power in indivisible

This relates to the idea that there are military powers and economic powers, and powers that are both.  Waltz argues that power most be treated in totality and not a divisible parts that can see states rated different within the international system’s distribution of capabilities.

Great powers are strong not simply because they have nuclear weapons but also because their immense resources enable them to generate and maintain power of all types, military and other, at strategic and tactical levels. The barriers to entering the superpower club have never been higher and more numerous. The club will long remain the world's most exclusive one.  (p.183)

A systems theory requires one to define structures partly by the distribution of capabilities across units. States, because they are in a self-help system, have to use their combined capabilities in order to serve their interests. The economic, military, and other capabilities of nations cannot be sectored and separately weighed. States are not placed in the top rank because they excel in one way or another. Their rank depends on how they score on all of the following items: size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence.  (p.131)

Focus on security vice absolute power

On of the concepts that separates classical realism from neo-realism is that neo-realists believe that the goal of states is security and not power maximization.  This is reflected in the belief that states would rather balance against a hegemon rather than bandwagon with them as if they are the weaker member of the hegemonic alliance, they are at the mercy of the hegemon. This all relates to balance-of-power theory.

To achieve their objectives and maintain their security, units in a condition of anarchy—be they people, corporations, states, or whatever-must rely on they means they can generate and the arrangements they can make for themselves. Self-help is necessarily the principle of action in an anarchic order.  (p.111)

In making political decisions, the first and most important concern is not to achieve the aims 'the members of an organization may have but to secure the continuity and health of the organization itself.  (p.111)

A balance-of-power theory, Properly stated, begins with assumptions about states: They are unitary actors who, at a minimum, seek their own preservation and, at a maximum, drive for universal domination.  … To the assumptions of the theory we then add the condition for its operation: that two or more states coexist in a self-help system, one with no superior agent to come to the aid of states that may be weakening or to deny to any of them the use of whatever instruments they think will serve their purposes. The theory, then, is built up from the assumed motivations of states and the actions that correspond to them.  (p.118)

In a competition for the position of leader, bandwagoning is sensible behavior where gains are possible even for the losers and where losing does not place their security in jeopardy. Externally, states work harder to increase their own strength, or they combine with others, if they are falling behind. In a competition for the position of leader, balancing is sensible behavior where the victory of one coalition over another leaves weaker members of the winning coalition at the mercy of the stronger ones. Nobody wants anyone else to win; none of the great powers wants one of their number to emerge as the leader.  (p.126)

Because power is a means and not an end, states prefer to join the weaker of two coalitions. …If states wished to maximize power, they would join the stronger side, and we would see not balances forming but a world hegemony forged. This does not happen because balancing, not bandwagoning, is the behavior induced by the system. The first concern of states is not to maximize power but to maintain their positions in the system.  (p.126)

The expectation is not that a balance, once achieved, will be maintained, but that a balance, once disrupted, will be restored in one way or another.  (p.128)

Power is not about control

Waltz argues that power is not about the ability to control outcomes; rather, it provides a state with both security and freedom of action.

To identify power with control is to assert that only power is needed in order to get one's way.   That is obviously false, else what would there be for political and military strategists to do? To use power is to apply one's capabilities in an attempt to change someone else's behavior in certain ways.  (p.191)

If power does not reliably bring control, what does it do for you? Four things, primarily. First, power provides the means of maintaining one's autonomy in the face of force that others wield. Second, greater power permits wider ranges of action, while leaving the outcomes of action uncertain.  … Third, the more powerful enjoy wider margins of safety in dealing with the less powerful and have more to say about which games will be played and how.  … Fourth, great power gives its possessors a big stake in their system and the ability to act for its sake. … In self-help systems, as we know, competing parties consider relative gains more important than absolute ones. Absolute gains become more important as competition lessens. … In a self-help system, when the great-power balance is stable and when the distribution of national capabilities is for absolute gains may replace worries about relative ones. (pp.194-195)

Non-state actors are important but are not the major players

Waltz acknowledges that transnational and non-state actors play are role on the international system; however, they do not define the system as they are not the major players.  The structure of the system is defined by how the major powers sit in relation to each other, not how all players sit in relation to each other.

So long as the major states are the major actors, the structure of international politics is defined in terms of them.  (p.94)

To say that major states maintain their central importance is not to say that other actors of some importance do not exist. The "state-centric" phrase suggests something about the system's structure. Transnational movements are among the processes that go on within it. That the state-centric view is so often questioned merely reflects the difficulty political scientists have in keeping the distinction between structures and processes clearly and constantly in mind.  (p.95)

States are the units whose interactions form the structure of international-political systems (p.95)


Waltz’s theory is very heavily geared towards the Cold War period in which he is writing.  With the demise of the USSR, the USA was the only superpower, this meant that the world was, in essence, monopolar.  The USA therefore, in theory, possessed absolute security and could act as it saw fit.  However, in most cases, it did not seem to do this.

Bandwagoning also does not make sense.  If you take Australia’s perspective, we bandwagoned with the US although this may have been seen as being detrimental to our security, as demonstrated by the bombings in Spain that led to their withdrawal from Iraq, and also bombings in Bali.  Aligning with the US has been beneficial to Australia’s security and prosperity.

Seminar Points

  Can the invasion of Iraq be seen as an example of the effect of mono-polarity on the superpower’s actions?

  The way in which the rise of China has been treated by some scholars would support that the concern over relative power remains. It also highlights that one of the uses of power by the US would be to maintain the system as it stands at the moment. But it also raises issues with the fact that the reduction in the number of dominant powers reduces interdependence, I do not believe that the US enjoys that at the moment.

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