Kenneth Waltz Research Paper

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Kenneth Neal Waltz, born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is best known for developing the neorealist or structural realist approach to the study of international relations. A central figure in the development of international relations scholarship in the post-World War II (1939-1945) era, Waltz has also made notable contributions to the understanding of nuclear weapons proliferation and its consequences. Waltz received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1948 and his graduate degrees from Columbia University in the 1950s. He retired from teaching in the mid-1990s and, as of 2005, was serving as Emeritus Ford Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley and as an adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University.

Waltz’s earliest contribution, presented in Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (1954), organizes the primary causes of war into three distinct images or levels of analysis. The first image considers human nature and whether it can be developed and constrained in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of war. The second image emphasizes domestic political factors as the source of interstate conflicts. Finally, the third image identifies as the key causes of war the structure of the international system and, in particular, the absence of any centralized arbiter to settle disputes among countries, a condition known in international relations as anarchy. Through these levels of analysis, Waltz seeks to isolate and therefore better understand the root causes of conflict among countries.

Waltz’s most influential work is Theory of International Politics (1979), in which he elaborates the principal tenets and predictions of neorealism. Sometimes called structural realism, neorealism emphasizes third-level causes of conflict among countries. As a result of anarchy, states can trust only themselves to secure their survival. Therefore, they must always be suspicious of others, making cooperation with other countries limited and infrequent. In Waltz’s view, even though states must strive for security, they do not intrinsically seek boundless power or territory; therefore, once their security needs are met, most states will accept the status quo and avoid conflict with other states. States whose ambitions exceed these legitimate security needs can be contained by the systemic balance of power.

Beginning in the 1980s, Waltz’s research turned increasingly to the implications of nuclear proliferation. The leading nuclear optimist, Waltz argues that, given the destruction any nuclear exchange would entail, an increase in the number of states with nuclear weapons makes the international system more stable and armed conflict less likely. In effect, nuclear proliferation obligates states to be more restrained and careful in their relations with other countries. Nuclear pessimists, on the other hand, contend that the proliferation of nuclear weapons destabilizes international relations. Together with Scott D. Sagan, Waltz coauthored The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate (1995), which elaborates the debate between nuclear pessimists and optimists in the context of the cold war’s superpower nuclear standoff. Sagan and Waltz reissued their book in 2002 with an expanded discussion of proliferation in India and Pakistan, and of the threat of nuclear weapons being acquired by terrorists.


  1. Sagan, Scott D., and Kenneth N. Waltz. 2002. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. New York: W. W.Norton.
  2. Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw Hill.

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