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A Current Reading of Man, The State, and War by Kenneth Waltz

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(As previously published on my Medium.com page.)

As a former International Affairs scholar, I accumulated a lot of political theory books. Some I’ve read, some I hope to, and some I may never get to. But they look good on my bookshelves.

One of the books I have always been interested in reading and recently finished is Man, The State, and War by Kenneth Waltz. Waltz was a giant in International Affairs according to his obituary in the New York Times and Man, The State, and War was his first major work. What started as his doctoral dissertation became one of the premier books for explaining how nation states interact with each other.

According to the price tag on the used copy I have, I either bought it for $1 or I acquired it from the shelves of my mother’s since closed used book store. Or maybe I bought it from her for a dollar.

Unlike other art, we don’t price books based on their relevance to society. $1 for a book that helped form an entire line of modern political thought. Although some who oppose the multi-national approach the world has taken in the last 60 years may feel $1 or even less is appropriate.

That’s my goal here: to publish my thoughts on Man, The State, and War and look at Waltz through the spectrum of what is currently happening internationally in 2018.

First and foremost, Man, The State, and War is a look at individuals, intra-national, and international relations. For Waltz, “structured realism” rules when it comes to international affairs. Waltz writes that nation states are the top negotiator of power at the international level.

That is true if one only looks at wars between nations. One nation’s military power versus another nation’s military power.

But that perspective is simplistic on a few levels.

  1. Nations engage in military operations versus powerful international organizations quite often. Al Qaeda, violent extremist organizations, or even crime syndicates have a say in the defense and security of nations. In many cases, these supranational organizations have has much capabilities as nations. But while they operate on a low-cost, high-impact strategy, for Waltz, you have to pay the high-cost to be the boss.
  2. Militarily isn’t the only way nations engage. Although Waltz writes a bit on trade and tariffs, the book’s focus is on war, but doesn’t mention any of the other platforms of conflict.
  3. Since the book was written, international arbiters have grown. NATO, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and a list of trade blocs have worked to mitigate conflict between nations. Waltz even gets into the benefits of a European bloc before the European Union was formed.

Nation versus nation — the realist perspective — is important and valuable in the same way Clausewitz’s “total war” is important: as an easy-to-digest default setting. Once you understand checkers, you can move to chess. Once you understand chess, you can move to three dimensional, four dimensional, or multi-dimensional chess.

Of course, Man, The State, and War is a product of its time. Although Waltz’s research is deep, it is primarily focused on Western nations or the Soviet Union, as those were the main blocs of power immediately following World War II. He writes little of Asian or Middle Eastern relations. Is their perspective on individual, interstate, or intrastate relationships the same?

Without understanding different cultures, values, and individuals and the philosophical underpinnings of their relationships with their states, it is difficult to understand how they will interact internationally. If nations are a reflection of the human condition, what if the human condition is different in different regions? Not every region shares the same value set.

(Here we won’t get into tribalism tearing the fabric of states apart. But I will say our state-creating individual agreements are getting weaker.)

Waltz concludes with the idea that international organizations are very important, as they minimize the chaos of self-interested nations acting as humans in chaos would. They create a bargaining mechanism to reduce conflict.

While we had decades of building these international systems following World War II, they have been under attack in the last few years. What would Waltz have thought of the pushback of MAGA-based nationalism, which is an extension of Brexit-based “go it alone bilateralism”? I would love to see an educated debate by people on both sides: modern nationalism versus classic international philosophy, which attempts to minimize Hobbesian chaos-led conflict.

On one hand, I am far from a financial expert or an economist, but isn’t the goal to minimize risk in the long term? These modern social movements may actually increase risk of conflict. Perhaps the economic structure has effectively detached itself from the social structure and from their perspective, bilateralism is not a bad idea. Social ideals will sort themselves out. Just vote for the person who makes the best economic sense.

I am not sure Waltz would agree.

On the other hand, Waltz describes collaborative mechanisms as a way to temper the aspirations of nations, as states and agreed upon laws temper the aspirations of man. What happens when other nations are free riders in an alliance? What if a nation wants to redraw from an international organization not because it wants to conquer its neighbors, but because it is tired of paying for the bad decisions of the neighbors it once agreed to work with?

Do the nations rewrite the agreements or does the international structure break apart? Is war a necessary cleansing agent for ill-performing international agreements?

Perhaps chaos is the default and man’s occasional pauses of peace and agreements are socio-economic experiments he has to keep working out until he finds a model that accounts for all aspects of human and state behavior — from overly aggressive to overly lazy.

Maybe we are at the cusp of another inflection point.

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