Interview with Kenneth Neal Waltz

… the Physiocrat of International Politics – Published on Theory Talks, June 3, 2011.

… How does your theory relate to the rational actor assumption? Are states rational actors, or should they be?

  • I do not even know what “rational actor” means empirically. A rational actor assumption may enter into a theory but has no direct, empirical representation. One can define rationality only within narrow settings, as for example in game theory, where one can define what a rational actor is and work out some outcomes under assumed conditions. Of course economists presuppose that economic actors are rational. People of course in a very loose sense prefer to do less work and get higher rewards.
  • That is a good way of putting it now, but there is no reason in economics to think that a bunch of actors are going to be rational. Some of them are going to do better than others; some are going to be a lot smarter; some are going to be a little bit luckier than others; some are going to be better at cheating than others. All those things affect outcomes, but rationality—in its empirical form—has really little to do with it. The notion of rationality is a big help in constructing a theory, but one has to go back and forth between the theory and what goes out in the real world. But in the real world, does anybody think “I’m rational, or you’re rational”? Let alone, that states could be rational? It has no empirical meaning.

What are the principal writings in economics that influenced your dealings with the field of international relations theory?

  • I think that one of the biggest influences was the contrast between pre-physiocratic and pre-Adam Smith economics, and the kinds of economic notions, concepts, and theories that developed first with the physiocrats and then with Adam Smith. In fact, Adam Smith was very much indebted to the physiocrats, who we now kind of dismiss as people with very peculiar ideas. Some of their ideas were indeed peculiar, but they were the first ones to grasp the idea of an economy as such. That is to say, an economy made up of identifiable parts and an economy experiencing repeated behavior.
  • In one of the editions of a physiocratic book, maybe in the first edition, there was a picture of “an economy,” (the Tableau économique by François Quesnay, 1759, see image below) and of course it is a picture of the unseen and the unseeable, but it starts in the soil—that is the origins of wealth are conceived as being in soils and mines that produce gold, metals, and agricultural products. The picture then traces how these natural resources are worked up from that beginning into machines and items that can be bought, sold, used and reused, exchanged, eaten and all that … //

… States should accommodate to their position in the international system, which is determined in big part by the shifts in relative capabilities between states. Has the United States, in your view, adapted well to the position it is currently in? And if not, what system does it seem to respond to?

  • It responds to the situation all giant countries have responded to. And it responds in the very same way: it abuses its power, singling out poor, weak countries—that’s what we specialize in—and beating them up! That is what we do! Six wars in the twenty years since the 1980s; they were all cases in which we singled out small and weak countries like Granada or Panama, and we proceeded to beat them up. It is sad, but this is a typical behavior of powers that are dominant, or used to be dominant in their regions and now are globally dominant. The United States is the globally dominant power, and that is why there is only one way that other states can deter the United States: by acquiring nuclear weapons. Nobody can deter the United States conventionally anymore because we dispose of a military budget that is nearly the equal of all the other countries in the world combined. So, how can anybody deter the United States without resorting to nuclear weapons? They cannot.

Does it mean that, by bullying smaller countries, the U.S. has in fact adapted well to its position in the system?

  • That is what you would expect dominant powers to do. One does not like it; I do not like it; and I am sure the countries that experience the bullying do not like it; but it is expected behavior. That is the way countries behave when they have dominant power—globally or within their region.

In 2002, you wrote about globalization. The fact is a contradiction in terms, I would say, because globalization does not really matter much for Realism. So, why do you still feel the need to write about its good or bad attributes?

  • I was really writing about interdependence, which is now called globalization. There was a very marked tendency, and it was very common for people—political scientists and economists—to refer to the world as increasingly “interdependent” and to draw inferences from that supposed condition. I first developed this idea when I was the only political scientist in a faculty seminar, while all the other members were economists. That seminar was led by a person named Raymond Vernon, who was a big name in interdependence. I made some comments about how little interdependent the world was and the conception that high inequality is low interdependence. And I still believe that. I think it is a simple truth that in a world of inequality (and bear in mind that inequalities across states are much greater than the inequalities within states), interdependence is low. In other words, some states are highly independent and other states are highly dependent on those states that dispose of greater economic or military power than the others do. I think that is still extremely important, and not extremely well understood.

How does your theory apply to the dynamics one can witness on the African continent?

  • You know, I did not set out to be an international politics person. I started out to be a political philosopher; but there were not any jobs available, and they were in the field of international politics, so that is how I ended up in international politics. When I did, my wife and I realized you cannot pay attention to everything, so I said to myself “one continent that I am going to leave aside is Africa.” I preferred to concentrate on Europe and China. I did a pretty good deal of work on China because I saw it ripe to become one of the most important parts of the world of which I knew nothing. So, I proceeded to do a lot of work on China in order to know something about it. But Africa is kind of a blank spot for me, apart from casual observation. Even though, I would say that the whole notion of anarchy applies very well to Africa.
  • In fact, a criticism people used to make to me was that Africa was clearly an anarchic arena, and yet African states did not fight much among themselves. How, then, would a Realist like myself explain that? Well, I did by invoking Turney-High’s book in anthropology, which was published—I believe—in the 1920s. There, he made the very valid point that countries have to obtain a certain level of self-consciousness as being a political entity, and a certain level of competence before they are able to fight one another. Turney-High’s illustration was very clear with his study of the peoples he referred to as the “Californians,” who were such a primitive people that they did not have the ability to form groups or fight as a group. A consciousness and competence at a certain level is needed before a group is able to systematically impose on another group—whether in the form of warfare or in other ways. I think that, for a long time, Africa was in that condition, and that, as it proceeds away from that condition, African countries will be able to fight wars against one another. In a historical sense, though, that is an implication of advancement.

(full long interview text).

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