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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Kenneth Waltz 1924-2013

by | May 21st, 2013 | 07:00 am

In a classic essay, Isaiah Berlin draws on a fragment attributed to Archilochus to draw a distinction between foxes and hedgehogs; the fragment notes that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If there was ever a hedgehog, it was Kenneth Waltz. Waltz’s “one big thing” was to view international politics in terms of structure, whether defined as the anarchy of the international system (in Man, the State and War) or its polarity (in Theory of International Relations). Relentlessly skeptical of induction (see this interesting interview) and with the messiness of domestic politics, Waltz continually focused on what he saw as the basics of international politics, namely how balances of power are sustained.

For the purpose of this blog, his most important contributions had to do with his controversial views of the proliferation—or what he preferred to call the “spread”—of nuclear weapons. In a famous—or infamous– Adelphi Paper written in 1981,  Waltz walks through the reasons why the spread of nuclear weapons is not likely to have the many adverse effects attributed to it. Pointing to the stability of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States during the postwar period, Waltz found no reason to believe that regional balances of power would behave any differently. To be sure, acquisition of nuclear weapons would have the effect of deterring attack on the acquiring party. But for Waltz that was virtually the definition of a stabilizing development. Nor did he think it risky that weak states or irrational leaders or terrorists or any other domestic political developments would upset this stabilizing logic; the very destructiveness of nuclear weapons induced caution. Nuclear weapons were a not a particularly effective means of blackmail either. The following long paragraph is classic Waltz in its sharply-etched, incisive style; its relevance to the Korean peninsula should be obvious:

“Two conditions make for the success of nuclear blackmail. First, when only one country had nuclear weapons, threats to use them had more effect. Thus, President Truman’s nuclear threats may have levered the Soviet Union’s troops out of Azerbaijan in 1946. Second, if a country has invested troops and suffered losses in a conven­tional war, its nuclear blackmail may work. In 1953, Eisenhower and Dulles may have convinced Russia and China that they would widen the Korean War and intensify it by using nuclear weapons if a settlement were not reached. In Korea, we had gone so far that the threat to go further was plausible. The blackmailer’s nuclear threat is not a cheap way of working one’s will. The threat is simply incredible unless a considerable investment has already been made. Dulles’s speech of 12 January 1954 seemed to threaten massive retaliation in response to mildly bothersome actions by others. The successful seige of Dien Bien Pbu in the spring of that year showed the limitations of such threats. Capabilities foster policies that employ them. But monstrous capabilities foster monstrous policies, which when contemplated are seen to be too horrible to carry through. Imagine an Arab state threat­ening to strike Tel Aviv if the West Bank is not evacuated by Israelis. No state can make the threat with credibility because no state can expect to execute the threat without danger to themselves.”

Waltz was supremely confident in the force of his theoretical priors. Consistent with the logic of his approach, one of his last contributions was a piece on Iran. The title was not “Why It is OK if Iran Gets the Bomb”; it was “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” Waltz argued that a nuclear Iran would in fact be stabilizing for a region long out of balance because of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons.

The rhetorical force of the cited paragraph above comes in part from Waltz’s continuous contention that unchecked major powers are much more dangerous than unchecked small ones, who are much more likely to take a defensive crouch.  Later in his career, he continually warned about the dangers of unipolarity and an over-reaching United States, a long-standing theme of critics of US policy toward North Korea as well. Waltz believed that despite all of the good reasons we concoct for foreign intervention—rooting out terrorism, pursuit of WMD, democracy and development, extended deterrence—in the end these are just covers for the more fundamental truth that big powers bully little ones; again, the North Koreans would heartily agree. He opposed both the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq for old-fashioned realist reasons: that they were costly sideshows that ultimately weakened US power.

I had the pleasure of taking Waltz’s graduate introduction to international relations while doing my PhD at Berkeley; my classmate, Steve Walt offers up a nice remembrance at Foreign Policy. I confess to having greater aspirations to knowing many things rather than one big thing. People who know one big thing are not necessarily the best decision-makers, as Phil Tetlock shows in some detail. It is possible to be confidently wrong as well as confidently right.

But when I sat down to ponder the question of whether the Korean peninsula was stable in two recent posts (here and here), it was pretty much straight Waltz. Ken was a towering intellect and will be missed by his acolytes and detractors alike.