reflections

May 14, 2013 | 05:29 GMT

3 mins read

Kenneth Waltz's Contribution to Geopolitical Thought

(Stratfor)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Influential academic and international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz died Monday. A key proponent of neorealist international relations theory, Waltz shifted away from the realist thinking of his predecessor Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980). Unlike realists before him, Waltz saw the root of international conflicts in an anarchic international system, rather than man's inherently imperfect, selfish nature. Waltz also differed from Morgenthau in his narrower definition of states' power and the place of the state in relation to the international system. But perhaps the most significant contribution Waltz made to contemporary international relations theory was his intentionally scientific, rigorous method of studying international relations — an approach that contrasted with the subjective analyses of classical realists. It is this same impartial, objective and rigorous methodology that Stratfor applies to its study and understanding of the world.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

We at Stratfor are not ideologues; while Waltz's neorealism informs our geopolitical worldview, theory alone is an incomplete and imperfect tool for studying the world's complex geopolitical dynamism. A more pragmatic, real-world understanding is required. And indeed Waltz's own theories were not always applicable even to the very geopolitical conflicts upon which they were grounded. Critics often cite Waltz's belief that the global bipolar system during the Cold War would continue, with the United States and Soviet Union balancing against each other. This view largely prevented Waltz from foreseeing the collapse of the Soviet system, even though he recognized the superior position of the United States.

Nevertheless, many of Waltz's ideas are still actively debated in contemporary geopolitics. During the Cold War, in 1981, Waltz famously argued that nuclear proliferation — rather than the decommissioning of nuclear weapons — would lead to lasting peace as the number of states with nuclear deterrents rose. A few examples bear this out. The United States and the Soviet Union never engaged in open nuclear warfare. Pakistan and India have nuclear arsenals aimed at one another, but the two have not engaged in a major land war since 1971. While nuclear weapons are not the only deterrent that has prevented another Indo-Pakistani war, they have helped.

Waltz stood by his view of nuclear proliferation as a deterrent, and ultimately an arbiter for peace, until the end of his life. In the summer of 2012, he argued that the West should allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon as part of a regional balance of power that would help to maintain broader Middle East peace and stability. Arguing that Iran's political leadership, despite its rhetoric, is inherently rational and not suicidal, Waltz saw the likelihood of Iran using a nuclear device against a target like Israel as relatively low. But Waltz also believed that Iran's support of militants and state-sponsored terrorism was dangerous, and here is where a sophisticated view of geopolitics — taking into account intelligence, economics and Iran's geographic position — leads to a better understanding of Iran's position. Neorealism would isolate Iran as a state from the broader regional system. While the view that Iran sees a future nuclear arsenal as a defense mechanism fits largely within Stratfor's regional understanding, it does not provide a complete picture of the competition for power that exists between Iran, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states.

Waltz's theories, part of a larger body of international relations theory, inform Stratfor's geopolitical framework. But so do empathetic analysis, rigorous economic and geographic study, and a holistic, non-dogmatic approach to the global system.

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