Kenneth Waltz and His Legacy
ROBERT ART is Christian A. Herter Professor of International Relations at Brandeis University and Fellow at MIT Center for International Studies. ROBERT JERVIS is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.See more by Robert ArtSee more by Robert Jervis
Close to midnight on May 12, at the age of almost 89, Kenneth Waltz passed away. He was lucid until a just a few hours before the end -- mentally sharp and clear-eyed as ever, fully engaged intellectually in international politics (he always insisted on calling the field that, as opposed to “international relations”), worried about what he saw as America’s overextension, and insisting, as always, on the need to be wary about the use of U.S. military power.
Ken was the leading realist theorist of his generation, and arguably the leading international politics theorist of the last half century. His first publication, Man, the State, and War, came out in 1959 and remains in print today; the last thing he wrote, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” appeared in Foreign Affairs in 2012. His teaching career spanned over fifty years and many institutions -- first Columbia, then Swarthmore and Brandeis, finally Berkeley, and then back to Columbia as an emeritus. In his scholarship, he asked the tough questions about the difficult and important issues. He was motivated by both theoretical and policy questions, the latter often setting the agenda for the former. He was intellectually courageous, usually staking out iconoclastic positions -- some of which were initially derided, many of which ended up becoming mainstream thinking. No matter what one’s theoretical persuasion, Ken Waltz was an intellectual force that had to be reckoned with.
He cared about writing style, and came down hard on his students, asking, “Who will bother to read you if you cannot make clear what you are thinking?” He would mark up one dissertation chapter and then write on it: “This is how it is done; do it right the next time.” His advice to many of his doctoral students became legend: “This thesis has problems and only you know how to fix them.” He believed that his task was to point out the problems; yours, to deal with them. Spoon feeding was not in Ken’s teaching vocabulary. Ken taught that the world of international politics was one of “self help”; if he was your thesis advisor that is the world you lived in.