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A summary of Kenneth Waltz's “The Anarchic Structure of World Politics.”

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Waltz begins this influential essay with an extended discussion about systems theory. He defines a system as "structured," that is, it has a

system-wide component that makes it possible to think of the system as a whole.

Within the system of international politics, he argues (as a realist) that ideologies, personal characteristics of world leaders, and other factors are largely irrelevant. Unlike domestic political systems, there is no formal hierarchy, and so the system of world politics is fundamentally "decentralized and anarchic." There are no well-defined roles for nations, and no nations are bound to obey; no nations are entitled by their position within the system to lead other nations. To explain how the system of world relations works, Waltz turns to what he describes as a classical economics model, the one pioneered by Adam Smith. In this way of thinking, a system exists even though everyone within it is an independent (economic) actor. People behave in predictable ways—to maximize their profits. In the system Waltz describes, states function in an analogous way: they seek to "ensure their survival." This is a

prerequisite to achieving any [other] goals that states may have,

such as regional domination, global conquest, and so on. Waltz acknowledges that not all sovereign states are equal—there is obviously a hierarchy between them—but he observes that this hierarchy is not related to goals or intents, but to capability. Some states, in short, are much stronger than others, and this is the most important factor in understanding international relations, according to Waltz.

Ultimately, because all states are out to preserve their own existence, what matters in international relations is power. "Among states," Waltz writes, "the state of nature is war." He describes international relations as a "self-help system," one in which the various units, or states, interact with the most selfish of motives—their own preservation. This creates a major problem, which is that states do not act in the interest of the world unless they believe it is also in their own interest. They also engage in behavior that they know is dangerous—Waltz cites the British-German naval buildup ahead of World War I—if it suits their main interest, which is survival. In this system, Waltz concludes, it is meaningless to expect nations to do anything with the interests of the world in mind. In fact, world organizations that restrain the powers of nations are self-defeating according to this line of thinking. Power matters in international relations, and it is actually the threat that the actions of one nation might lead to war, which could in turn lead to their destruction, that provides the best insurance against bloody conflicts. This is why, Waltz argues, we must accept that the global system is "anarchic" in the sense that it lacks any predisposition toward transnational organization.

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In "The Anarchic Structure of World Politics," Kenneth Waltz (1924–1913) advances a structural realist thesis of the international system. Specifically, he argues that the international system—in which all states act according to their self-interest without responsibility to a higher authority—is essentially an anarchy. There is, in other words, no "world government" to enforce a preferred code of conduct among states; each is free to do what it likes.

This is in contrast to domestic systems of governance, in which hierarchies are generally established and can enforce order among constituent components, such as political sub-divisions and individual humans.

Because states are the building blocks of the international system, other institutions are of lesser or no importance in an understanding of global order. Transnational corporations and intergovernmental organizations, which play a central role in the liberal theory of international relations, have little to no relevance in Waltz's realist worldview.

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In this article, the author compares the domestic political structure to the international one. He defines "structure" as an arrangement of political institutions.

International Politics and Domestic Politics

The author discusses three ways that international politics is different from domestic politics:

1. It lacks hierarchical order and organization, since all political systems are equal to one another.

2. The units of an international political system aren't formally differentiated by the functions they perform.

3. There is a lack of differentiation between the functions of each unit and the extent of each nation's capabilities.

The above characteristics make international politics chaotic. The author believes that since countries have the power to use force at their will, the system is problematic. Conversely, those nations that lack sufficient firepower are at the mercy of those countries with a well-established military.


Given the disorganized nature of international politics, war and violence are inevitable. There will always be some form of resistance or excessive use of force by one state to another.

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In "The Anarchic Structure of World Politics," Kenneth Waltz formulates abstract categories to explain how specific outcomes are produced from the relationships between the structure and the units (which he characterizes as "units of capabilities") of international relations. This is a monadic system in which all units are equal; no one may direct the decision another makes regarding its own self-interest. He describes this system as an anarchic one (since there is no central or dominant structure), which is bound together by what he describes as the "co-action" of self-interested units. Equilibrium between the units is determined by the distribution of the units' capabilities.

Power is estimated by comparing the capability of a number of units. The units which dominate—the "great powers"—bind all other units to act according to the rule of self-preservation. In this system, self-preservation takes precedence over financial benefit.

The anarchic structure of world politics is, then, a decision-making framework which concentrates on national self-preservation.

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Since we are limited to short answers here, I will give you a brief summary of Waltz's main point only...

The title of this book says it all, really.  Waltz is a realist.  This means that he believes that the major fact of international relations is the fact that the international order is anarchic.  What this means to him is that the world has no ruler that can force countries to do anything the way a country's government can force its citizens to do things.

Because of this, countries are most concerned with keeping themselves secure.  They will always act in ways that are meant to increase their own security (as opposed to acting in ways that are based on morality or political ideology).

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