U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kenneth Waltz and the Agency of Mankind

Waltz1On Saturday, the New York Times published an obituary for Kenneth M. Waltz, the seminal scholar of international relations theory, who died last week. The Times piece focused on some of Waltz’s more provocative ideas, including his argument that the “bipolar” world of the Cold War represented the most stable arrangement of power, and his view that, in terms of nuclear proliferation, “more may be better.” These controversial claims aside, the Times praised Waltz as a scholar and acknowledged his influence in developing the field of international relations theory, explaining that “the field developed in the 1950s, when the experiences of two world wars and the beginning of the cold war drove scholars to try to explain more precisely how nations interacted.” Historians should become much more skeptical of any sentence where “the Cold War” is the subject, “drove,” “caused,” or “led” the verb, and an individual or a group of individuals the object. For although Kenneth Waltz believed that the structure of the international system largely determined individual or state action, his own scholarship is the result of personal longings and questions– longings and questions that transcend the Cold War and make him a fascinating figure in American intellectual history. Because Waltz struggled with questions of human agency, the good society, and the role of America in the world, intellectual historians should examine his thought. Furthermore, because the fields of international relations and American intellectual history developed at the same time and shared, at their inception, some similar assumptions, intellectual historians should consider tracing the development of international relations theories in connection with larger trends in American thought and culture.

In his most influential work, Man, The State, and War, which began as a dissertation at Columbia in 1950, Waltz quotes the philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood: “The best way to understand the writings of philosophers is to seek out the questions they were attempting to answer.” Waltz then poses the question, “where are the major causes of war found?” “The answers,” he explains, “are bewildering in their variety and in their contradictory qualities. To make this variety manageable, the answers can be ordered under the following three headings: within man, within the structure of the separate states, within the state system.”1 Waltz then embarks on a dazzling examination of past arguments about human nature, human behavior, the creation of the nation-state, and politics beyond the nation-state. This is thrilling political theory: complex ideas from psychology, theology, poetry, philosophy, all pulled together in conversation, and the stakes– war under the shadow of nuclear weapons– couldn’t be higher. But behind this passionate attempt to excavate the nature of man, political community, and conflict is an animating question quite different from the one Waltz claimed to ask. If historians take Collingwood up on the challenge to seek out the questions past thinkers attempted to answer, they should read between the lines of Waltz remarkable book to discover that his central question was not “what causes war?” but rather “how much agency does man have?”

Engaging with ideas from William James, Aristophanes, Augustine, Spinoza, Rousseau, Thomas Malthus, Thomas Hobbes, John Milton and Reinhold Niebuhr, Waltz struggles to discover how much man is in control of his or her environment, or if we are all fortune’s fools, limited by larger systems and circumstance. Indeed, Kenneth Waltz engaged in questions about the causes of war for the same reasons that Perry Miller, writing at the same time, chose to study the Puritans. “They were struggling,” Miller wrote with sympathy, “to extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism . . . to set him upon his own feet, to endow him with a knowledge of utility and purpose . . . so that he might rationally choose and not be driven from pillar to post by fate or circumstance.”2 Both Miller and Waltz, driven by concerns about human agency, sought to “extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism” and carve out a space– however small– for human agency in a complex and dangerous world. The Cold War may have heightened Waltz’s concerns about human agency, and it certainly provided him a medium in which to work out his questions, but those questions transcend and pre-date the Cold War context.

By funding scholars through public programs and private foundations, the Cold War also provided a medium through which scholars of American history could work out questions about American thought and culture. The fields of American Intellectual history and International Relations developed around the same time, and both fields shared similar assumptions about ideology. In Man, The State, and War, Waltz exhibited a disenchantment with Enlightenment faith in reason, demonstrating that rational pursuit of self interest often leads to conflict. Yet if reason had its limits for Waltz, ideology was inherently erroneous and suspect. Other early scholars of international relations shared this view, including historian Norman A. Graebner, who published Ideas and Diplomacy in 1964. Intellectual historians in the 1950s, following the Progressive historians before them, also tended to view ideology as dangerous, and erroneous. Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote that “the history of the twentieth century is a record of the manifold ways in which humanity has been betrayed by ideology. . . . Surely the basic conflict of our times, the world civil war of our own day, is precisely the conflict . . . between ideology and democracy.”3 After the 1960s, historians, largely influenced by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, had neutralized the concept of ideology and no longer associated it exclusively with concentration camps and cold war.

Melvyn P. Leffler’s impressive work of intellectual and diplomatic history, For the Soul of Mankind, published in 2008, shows that intellectual historians have done well to take ideology more seriously than Schlesinger and Waltz had in the 1950s. In addition, Leffler, who relies heavily on the international relations theory developed by Waltz, and who, like Waltz, is primarily concerned with human agency in For the Soul of Mankind, also demonstrates the value of Waltz’s ideas not just as subjects of intellectual history but also as useful frameworks for intellectual historian.

“This book,” writes Leffler in the introduction to For the Soul of Mankind, “is about men and their ideas and their fears and their hopes.”4 To explain why only Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev fully succeeded in ending hostilities, while all previous leaders failed, Leffler examines the role of memory, ideology and the international system in shaping leaders’ decisions. Leffler carefully shows how memory and experience shaped each leaders’ world view and influenced their decisions. He sympathetically conveys a sense of the unparalleled loss incurred by the soviets in the Second World War. With nine million Russian soldiers killed fighting the Germans within three decades after the First World War, Stalin’s fear of Germany and demand for a security zone is understandable, even rational. In this context, Gorbachev’s ability to transcend the “June 22 Syndrome” and declare that Communist governments in Eastern Europe were not necessary to guarantee Soviet security is indeed as impressive as Leffler claims.5

Leffler also succceeds in demonstrating the importance of ideas, offering new insights into the role of ideology in ending as well as launching the Cold War. Rather than depicting ideology as always a cause of hostility, Leffler shows that tehre was often an ideological imperative for peace. “Communism will defeat capitalism by showing . . . that the Communist system is more productive than the capitalist one,” Khrushchev declared, reminding his comrades that, “you cannot put a rocket into soup.”6 In addition, Leffler argues that Gorbachev finally succeeded at bringing an end to the Cold War tensions because he “wanted mostly to rekindle the real promise of Communism” and understood that “to do so, he needed to end the Cold War.”7 Ideological tensions may have begun the Cold War, but Leffler shows that Gorbachev’s commitment to the Communist ideology also helped to end it.

Throughout the book, Leffler relies on international relations theory, often exhibiting sympathy for Waltz’s brand of structural realism. Yet Leffler blends structural realism, which holds that the international balance of power is the most important factor in shaping foreign policy, with a new focus on ideology. “The Cold War lasted as long as it did because of the ways in which American and Soviet ideas intersected with evolving conditions of the international system,” Leffler explains8 This combination is often insightful and enlightening, though it may be contradictory and problematic to the extent that it undermines Leffler’s argument for human agency.

Structural realism leaves little room for agency, and causes Leffler to makes statements such as “the two most powerful nations on earth were not in control of events,” and “the Cold War came because conditions in the international system created risks that Truman and Stalin could not accept and opportunities they could not resist,” which suggest the limits of human agency.9

An analysis that places equal emphasis on the international structure and the role of ideology may seem contradictory. For example, the claim that Soviet policymakers “were more concerned with defense than with revolution” undermines the claim that Communist ideology was central to Soviet leaders.10 Indeed, Leffler even asserts that Stalin, “was acting like a Russian tsar,” echoing the argument of Walter Lippmann, who claimed that ideology was second to power considerations for the Soviet Union. These assertions, based on the element of structural realism in For The Soul of Mankind, would seem to contradict the importance Leffler also places on ideology.

In his chapter on Khruschev, Leffler includes the quotation, “a man comes to life in his paradoxes.”11 For the Soul of Mankind comes to life in the paradoxes it creates by engaging with different models from International Relations theory. Leffler combines realism and ideology, individual agency, and political circumstance. Most of the contradiction in his arguments may reveal more about the flaws of rigid international relations theories than about the book itself, but in demonstrating the limits of these theories Leffler also illustrates their analytic value.

It would be interesting to see historians not only engage with these theories when relevant, as Leffler does, but also examine their origins, perhaps in relation to trends in the history profession after the Second World War. Historians might also trace the development of different schools of international relations thought, connecting them to broader trends in post-war American social and political thought, such as the development of human rights, cultural relativism, multiculturalism, communitarianism, post-structuralism, and the rise of “free market” ideology.

1Kenneth M. Waltz, Man, The Sate, and War, 12.

2Perry Miller, The New England Mind, FromColonies to Province, 310.

3Quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, 300.

4Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind, 8.

5Leffler, 378.

6Leffler, 193.

7Leffler, 450.

8Leffler, 452.

9Leffler, 278, 257-58.

10Leffler, 27.

11Leffler, 174.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wonderful reflections here, and a very helpful analysis of Leffler! Some of the best intellectual and cultural history these days is focused on foreign policy and international relations–Frank Nincovitch, Victoria de Grazia, Andrew Preston, Amy Kaplan, just to name a few–and so this is a timely and welcome piece.

    As far as making the kind of connections you suggest, it seems the post-WWI realism of a Waltz and Niebuhr was pretty heavily wedded to existentialism–a newly felt need to control, or at least contain, the inherent disorder (anarchy?) of human nature, especially when socialized through classes, nation-states, etc. Given Niebuhr’s continuing popularity, does that mean our present “power elite” are still beholden to existentialist renderings of the human condition?

  2. This is an interesting post, which I have read too quickly to offer a lot of profound comments. As someone interested in the disciplinary history of International Relations, however, I would like to mention a couple of things.

    I realize this blog is focused on U.S. intellectual history, but it should be kept in mind that the field of International Relations (including IR theory) is not co-terminous with U.S. developments. So the NYT obit for Waltz is wrong to say “the field developed in the 1950s” as if IR is synonymous with U.S. IR. In fact the first chair in international politics was set up at Univ of Wales Aberystwyth in 1919, and the first incumbent was E.H. Carr, historian (among other things) and author of the seminal (since we’re tossing that word around) Twenty Years Crisis.

    A great deal of interesting work has been done by International Relations scholars in recent years on the history of the discipline, and that work has complicated the simplistic Idealist vs Realist story, which saw the interwar idealists being countered by the Realists, starting w Carr and including Neibuhr, Morgenthau, Kennan, and Waltz. That story is not completely wrong but misses a lot, including the diversity within the so-called ‘interwar idealist’ camp.

    At the risk of being immodest, I think a post of mine from a while ago on American political science and the development of IR, riffing on an article by Nicholas Guilhot, might be of interest and I will link it in the next comment box. (I also wrote some recent reflections on Waltz, but that post wd be of somewhat less interest, I think).

    • Correction to the above:
      Carr was *not* the first holder of the Aberystwyth chair. It was Alfred Zimmern. Carr did not go there until the mid-1930s.

      [Moral: Mistakes are not unknown on the Internet. (Sigh.)]

  3. I have doubts about the claim that Waltz’s “real” question in the ‘Man the State and War’ was about human agency. It’s been a while since I read the book but my feeling is that it is mainly about the causes of war, and philosophical questions about agency and determinism are of interest to Waltz mainly insofar as they bear on the causes-of-war question.

    With due respect to Mark Edwards, who I am sure is an excellent scholar, I find his suggestion that Waltz is connected to existentialism peculiar. *Maybe* there is something to it for ‘Man the State and War’. but not, I think, for Waltz’s ‘Theory of International Poilitcs’ (1979), which appeared 20 yrs after MSW and has had the more lasting impact on the field of IR.

    • p.s. John Herz’s ‘International Politics in the Atomic Age’ (1959) might be more amenable to an existentialist reading.

    • LFC: My knowledge of Waltz is very limited, I was more reflecting off Rivka’s analysis of Waltz as well as what I know about Niebuhr. So, no claims to excellence here.

  4. Links:

    “American political science and IR: revisiting some disciplinary history” (includes some references at the end under “further reading”):

    Post on Waltz:

    Links to other recent Waltz posts in the IR blogosphere:

  5. This is not bad.


    The hindsight is excellent, the predictions pedestrian. I’m unconvinced historians have better crystal balls than everyone else. If you’re familiar with Philip Tetlock’s work*, perhaps historians should just stick to the past.

    [BTW, Waltz’ theorizing led him to endorse a nuclear Iran. Oy.]

    *Smithsonian Mag blog: “Philip Tetlock had 284 political “experts” make about a hundred predictions. The study is summarized in the book Everything Is Obvious* Once You Know the Answer:

    For each of these predictions, Tetlock insisted that the experts specify which of two outcomes they expected and also assign a probability to their prediction. He did so in a way that confident predictions scored more points when correct, but also lost more points when mistaken. With those predictions in hand, he then sat back and waited for the events themselves to play out. Twenty years later, he published his results, and what he found was striking: Although the experts performed slightly better than random guessing, they did not perform as well as even a minimally sophisticated statistical model. Even more surprisingly, the experts did slightly better when operating outside their area of expertise than within it.

  6. Two other quick things:
    — The fourth paragraph of the post, discussing how “ideology” was used as a sort of dirty word by some (or many) American intellectuals in the ’50s and which has that rather extraordinary quote from Schlesinger, is v. insightful, IMO.
    — Campbell Craig’s book Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the Realism of Neibuhr, Morgenthau, and Waltz, published 10 years ago, may be worth mentioning. (I have not read it.)

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