Kenneth Waltz, principal theorist in international relations, dies at 88

Bonnie Rose Shulman/Courtesy

Related Posts

Kenneth Waltz, a prominent thinker in international relations known as the father of the political theory neorealism, died on May 12. He was 88.

Waltz joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1971 and became professor emeritus of political science before leaving for Columbia University in 1994. His most influential works, “Man, the State, and War” (1959) and “Theory of International Politics” (1979) introduced new arguments about state behavior in international relations that spearheaded political thought in the postwar era.

The preceding dominant theory of international relations, realism, attributed state behavior to human nature. Waltz introduced neorealism as an alternative explanation, attributing states’ behavior to the contexts they are in as well as systemic reasons. According to neorealism, states exist in a world with no central authority and pursue their own interests for self-survival.

“His theory of neorealism plays such a central role that you couldn’t teach ‘Intro to International Relations’ without teaching it,” said professor Amy Gurowitz, one of Waltz’s former students, who now teaches the introductory international relations course on campus. Waltz is also known for his controversial argument in his 1981 monograph, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” which says that nuclear proliferation would enhance international security.

James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, was advised on his thesis by Waltz and said Waltz was always nuanced in his thinking and thought long and hard on the issues he cared about, such as nuclear deterrence.

“One of the things he took exception to in my thesis was that I wasn’t sufficiently distinguishing between deterrence and defense,” Fearon said. “He was upset by the way deterrence has migrated to mean any attempt to dissuade another state from doing anything.”

Waltz leaves behind a legacy through mentoring accomplished political thinkers, including Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation, and Barry Posen, director of MIT’s Security Studies Program.

Shibley Telhami, a former student of Waltz and current Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he was greatly influenced by and resonated with Waltz’s writing. When he decided to switch subjects — to political science from mathematics and philosophy — the first book he read was “Man, the State, and War.”

“It was brilliant,” Telhami said. “It was new to me, so I immediately went to meet him, and told him I was interested in doing a Ph.D.”

Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University, knew Waltz since he was an undergraduate student and later became a longtime friend and colleague.

“He was already a leading IR theorist, and here I was — just got my Ph.D. and just started teaching, and he treated me as a peer,” Jervis said.

Waltz also encompassed many attributes that contradicted his public image.

“Waltz had an image,” Telhami said. “The image was that he was a power guy. He was opposite of that; he was a warm and caring person. His realism led him, more often, to oppose war.”

Waltz emphasizes in “Theory of International Relations” that he means to describe general state behavior rather than specific foreign policies and state actions. However, Steven Weber, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said that Waltz was still interested in policy issues, contrary to his reputation.

In addition to his professional interests, Waltz also loved opera and art and visited numerous opera houses in New York in his free time, according to Jervis.

Waltz’s wife, the former Helen Lindsley, died in 2008. Waltz is survived by his two sons, Daniel and Kenneth, as well as four grandchildren.

Contact Mary Zhou [email protected]