Inside the Bush School of Government and Public Service - Texas A&M University

Professor Christopher Layne to Give Tribute to the Late Professor Kenneth Waltz

Professor Christopher Layne will give the following tribute to the late Professor Kenneth Waltz at the “Celebration of the Life of Kenneth N. Waltz,” held at Columbia University in New York City on 12 October 2013.


Today is a special day to honor a man we all admired, respected - and loved.  And a doubly meaningful day for those of us who were privileged to be his students.

When I started to think about what I wanted to say, it was natural to flash back to February 2010 to the International Studies Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans.  Many people here today were present when Ken was honored with the International Security Studies Section’s Distinguished Scholar Award.  The overflow crowd was, in itself, an eloquent statement about Ken’s standing in our profession.  That ceremony took place in the largest ballroom at the Riverside Hilton, and it was filled to capacity.  It was wonderful to see how Ken was so deeply touched by the acclaim he received that day from our colleagues.  And it was acclaim justly deserved because few scholars have ever shaped the agenda of a field the way that Ken Waltz shaped the fields of International Relations Theory, and Security Studies

I am sure others here today will discuss Ken’s scholarly contributions at length.  So I will try to avoid repetition.  Yet one cannot pay tribute to Ken without mentioning both Man, the State and War, and Theory of International Politics.  Man, the State, and War is rightly regarded as one of the classic works of IR theory and remains, to this day, one of the most widely read and cited works in the field.  It was - and remains - a seminal discussion of the “levels of analysis” problem in international relations.  Hinting at the argument he would develop in Theory of International Politics, in Man, the State and War, Ken argued that there is something distinctive and important about the nature of international politics that sets it apart from the study of domestic politics: the absence of a sovereign.  It is fair to say that even if Ken had ceased to publish after writing Man, the State, and War, this book alone would have firmly established him as one of the major IR theorists of the twentieth century.


Theory of International Politics (1979) was Ken’s answer to the question posed in Man, the State, and War: what is distinctly “international” about international politics?  In Theory of International Politics, Ken said that the answer is the structure of the international system.  The international system’s structure is composed of two factors: anarchy (the lack of a sovereign capable of making and enforcing rules on the units in the system (states), and the distribution of capabilities among the major units (great powers) in the system - polarity.  Using anarchy and various configurations of polarity, Ken deduced the likely patterns of outcomes that would occur in international politics.

It is not an exaggeration to say that since its publication, Theory of International Politics has defined the agenda of debates about IR theory.  Even those who are not structural realists - regardless of whether they are liberal IR theorists, neoliberal institutionalists, or constructivists - have been forced wrestle with the Ken’s balance-of-power theory.  For those within the community of realist security studies scholars, Theory of International Politics has been a point of departure for new debates about the security dilemma and offence/defence balance, the role of polarity in determining international politics outcomes (including debates about whether U.S. hegemony is durable or desirable), and the use of neorealist theory to predict, or explain, the foreign policies/grand strategies of specific great powers. In this latter respect - although Ken disapproved, his theory came to constitute the foundation of “neoclassical” realism.  Along with Man, the State, and War, Theory of International Politics continues to occupy a central role in the IR theory literature, and its sure to do so for a very long time to come.

And here is a good segue to paying tribute to Ken not just as a scholar, but as a teacher, mentor and friend.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Ken (along with Paul Seabury) transformed my life.  I arrived a Berkeley after graduating law school and passing the California Bar Exam.  And being absolutely certain that the last thing I wanted to do in my life was practice law.  I had always had a passion for diplomatic history, and I had a vague notion that maybe I should pursue an academic career without having the slightest clue about how grad school was all about or how to lay the foundation to build such a career.  Unsurprisingly, Berkeley did not start well.  My first graded assignment for Ken was pretty mediocre.  And he let me know that.  But in a constructive way - because let me know what I needed to go to get better.  Like a great football coach, he knew how to push the right buttons to get me to raise my game.  The next written project came back with a very different comment.  One that I remember to this day: “Decisively improved.”  At that moment, I knew I had turned an important corner with in terms of my own self-confidence and, more important, in terms of gaining Ken’s intellectual respect.  From that point on, he spent many hours nurturing my professional development and becoming a treasured and irreplaceable friend.

As I am sure Steve Walt remembers, in the Fall 1977 quarter we both were part of Ken’s graduate seminar on IR theory.  At the time, Ken was putting the finishing touches to Theory of International Politics.  The chapters of the book were part of our readings for the course, and we discussed and critiqued them.  Its almost impossible to describe the intellectual excitement for a young graduate student to be exposed to the evolving ideas of a great scholar then in the throes of producing his masterwork.  And, in a way, hard to grasp that we - who were just at the start of our academic careers - would be treated as full colleagues and given the opportunity to discuss the drafts of his chapters.  But that is the kind of teacher he was.  He inspired us, he motivated us, he stimulated us, and he made the study of IR theory the most intellectually exciting of experiences.

And, of course, I have special memories of Ken in the classroom.  The days he would almost bounce into our seminar room - of course in his trademark bow tie - and tap the desk in delight and remark, “That Thucydides, he knew it all.”  And each re-reading of the History of the Pelopennesian Wars confirms that Ken was absolutely right.  If Thucydides were alive to today he would have seen that the Iraq War and the Sicilian Expedition had a lot in common.  And the growing Sino-American rivalry would have fit right into his causal explanation of the origins of the competition between Athens and Sparta.

of offensive realism long before anyone coined the term.  As he said one day in class, “The trouble with having lots of capabilities is that if you have them, you are going to want to use them.”  This was not just an abstract observation.  Ken was keenly aware of America’s foreign policy pathologies.  The Vietnam War confirmed for him that overweening power caused the United States to succumb to the imperial temptation - and down the path to overexpansion, and eventual decline.  As he said in class one day, “When you are big, strong, and powerful you can afford to make the same damn fool mistakes over and over gain.  But when you no longer are big, strong, and powerful, you cannot afford those mistakes.”  He knew that the day would come when the United States would begin to pay a steep price for its pattern of promiscuous military interventions abroad, Today - as the specter of decline hangs over the debate about U.S. foreign policy - it is fair to say that Ken was ahead of this time.  He saw it coming.

He also was prescient - and wise - in other ways.  One day after our seminar, he said to me: “Chris, you need to read William Graham Sumner’s 1899 essay, ‘The Conquest of the United States of America by Spain.’  I guess like a lot of young grad students, I didn’t always listen to good advice when it was proffered.  Other than noting the incongruity of the essay’s title, I let it slip form my mind.  Until one day 20 years later I was in the U.S. foreign policy section of the UCLA research library looking for entirely different book when a volume on the shelf caught my eye: The Collected Essays of William Graham Sumner.  I took it home and that night read the essay Ken had told me to read twenty years earlier.  It was the intellectual equivalent of a “Wow, I could have had a V-8” moment.  Sumner warned that a foreign policy of great power activism abroad would ultimately erode the very foundations of American democracy.  With the Patriot Act. and National Security Agency eavesdropping on the emails and phones calls of American citizens, we live in a time when the fundamental constitutional liberties of the Fourth Amendment have all but been excised from the Constitution in the name of national security.  Here, too, like Sumner, Ken saw it coming and he understood that foreign policy can have bad domestic political and social consequences.. 


Beyond his impact as a scholar an a teacher, perhaps the best metric of Ken’s influence on our profession was his role as a mentor.  Look at the roster of the influential scholars who have studied under him.  These include just to name a few - without meaning to overlook anyone - Barry Posen (Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Security Studies Program), Stephen Van Evera (Professor of Political Science, MIT), Stephen Walt (Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University),  In addition, Ken has also had a profound influence in shaping the careers of two of the field’s leading scholars who were not formally students of his: Robert Art (a colleague when Ken taught at Brandeis University) and John Mearsheimer.

A second way of assessing Ken’s influence as a mentor is to look at the lessons he instilled in his students.  Having exchanged views with Steve Walt, Barry Posen, and Steve Van Evera about Ken, we all pretty much agree: in one sense, Ken was a hands-off mentor.  Ken did not tell us what topics we should research, what issues we should engage, or what answers we should reach.  Instead, he mentored us by setting an example - an exacting standard of the kind of scholarship and engagement with the world to which we should aspire.  Long before some in this room saw the need to organize against the “Cult of Irrelevance” in modern American political science, Ken was already rebelling against the growing prevalence of “small think” that was taking over the discipline.  Ken taught us all that we should take on big issues, not trivial ones.  He also encouraged his students to be fearless intellectually and not to hesitate to challenge - as he did - the conventional wisdom. 

This is especially important because Ken encouraged his students to tackle issues that not only advance IR theory as a discipline, but also have relevance to real-world policy debates.  One of the enduring lessons he passed on to his students is that if our scholarship and policy analyses led us down unfashionable roads outside the prevailing mainstream, we should resist pressures to conform and to court popularity.  As Steve Van Evera has put it:

Waltz taught us that great scholars are unafraid to advance unpopular or unfashionable arguments.  They should be willing to speak truth to power and to one another.  They should not waste time echoing arguments that have already become accepted.  Rather, they should devote their time to correcting the debate where they think it has gone off-track.  This means they must be ready to face criticisms and be unpopular.  They must be brave.  The purpose of a scholar, Waltz taught is to teach the world, not to win popularity contests among people inside or outside political science. 

Ken did not just tell us these things.  Rather he showed us by his own example in defending realism (always unpopular in liberal America); challenging the orthodoxies about multipolarity and nuclear proliferation; and emerging as an early opponent of the Vietnam War. 

Finally, Ken never imposed his views on his students.  On the contrary, he gave us full latitude to disagree with him.  With us, Ken was not in the business of creating “clones” but of creating independent thinkers.  While always forceful in presenting his own views, he encouraged us to do the same and, in so doing, showed us how to engage in debates that - while spirited - were always civil, constructive and dignified.

We live in an age where superlatives are routinely devalued by overuse.  However, the mantle of greatness truly was draped on Ken Waltz.  Through his published work, he has set the terms of debate for IR theory, and, in particular, for scholars in the field of security studies.  His greatness, however, is not just reflected in the books and articles he has published, but in the students he mentored.  Through their contributions to the field - and those of the students they, in turn, have mentored - Ken’s values have been passed on to successive generations of IR scholars.  Ken was a true giant and his passing leaves a huge void.  If there is a Hall of Fame for IR theorists, Ken’s place is secure alongside the like of Hans Mogenthau and E. H. Carr.  For me, Ken’s passing is intensely personal.  He was such a profound force in shaping my life.  As a scholar - but even more as a person - I will forever be in his debt.