Monday, May 13, 2013

The Grandest of Grand Theorists

Much debate these days about the place of grand theory in the scholarship of IR.  One thing we cannot debate is the centrality of Ken Waltz's work.  A few words about Waltz's work are in order since he passed away yesterday.*

*  See this post by Dan Nexon, which is an excellent start for the inevitable and much warranted appreciation of a great IR scholar.

He produced two of the most important books in the business.  One of the ways you can tell someone was truly terrific is how the ideas seem so much like common sense after the person wrote them but not so much before.  Man, The State, and War was a simple book that made a simple point--that we can look at different levels of analysis and see very different causes of war.  He gamed the book, of course, favoring the third level of analysis--the systemic level--setting the stage for the second book.  MSW was and still remains assigned in heaps of intro to IR classes, as it is quite readable, refers to heaps of political theory that students read for other reasons in other classes, and just gets one primed to think about IR.

The second book, Theory of International Politics, shaped the field ever since.  It is still relevant more than thirty years later, casting a huge shadow on all subsequent IR theory.  I think only Wendt's Social Theory has a similar level of ambition and impact.  Keohane and Nye's Power and Interdependence is almost as influential but not nearly as ambitious in terms of making us think differently about the world.

I realized in grad school when I did a supplementary reading course that Waltz was not creating stuff out of thin air but building on John Herz and others.  Still, Waltz's TIP is simply THE book that IR scholars must read if they want to be IR scholars.  I can think of many over-rated books that one can skip or just read the article version.  But you have to read TIP or read most of it as it appears in Neo-Realism and Its Critics.

My work has mostly been at the level of what Waltz would call Foreign Policy and not IR.  Why?  In part because I could see some of Waltz's limitations but had no clue how to do it better.  And, seriously, only one Realist has come close to Waltz in doing Realism at the systemic level as well as Waltz, and that would be Robert Gilpin and his book, War and Change.  The problem with Waltz is that he had a great theory for explaining continuity but not change.  Still, Waltz's arguments apply in a post-cold war world.

The one piece I always required in my Intro to IR classes were the latest versions of "hey, the spread of nuclear weapons might not be so bad" argument.  I didn't buy it, but the logic was fun to engage.

Four personal points:
  1. Waltz got his undergrad degree from Oberlin, so I always found a bit more pride in my Obie id given that it was shared with the God of IR Theory.
  2. When I prepared for my comprehensive exam in IR, I studied with a friend who was a political theorist. He  would simply ask of any reading we did: What Would Waltz Say?  And it was a very useful way for a non-IR person to see the entire field in a coherent way.
  3. When I took my first IR class in grad school, it happened in my second quarter there.  The first quarter was methods and political theory and other stuff, and I was left wondering if I should stay in grad school.  Nothing interested me that much and I didn't feel competent.  But once I got my hands on MSW and TIP, I re-fell in love with IR and had fewer existential crises about my graduate school career.
  4. I had dinner with Ken Waltz when he visited Montreal for a talk at Concordia (I think).  All I remember was that he was very kind and very engaged.  If I can be half as engaged at 80+, I will be most happy.  And if I can have 1/20th the influence that Waltz had, then I would be most thrilled indeed.

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