Theory of International Politics

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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“Theory of International Politics” as written by Kenneth N. Waltz purports to understand great power politics from the standpoint of “structural” or “systemic anarchy”.

When the international system’s organizing principle is one of self-help , notwithstanding the presence of the United Nations Security Council or Peacekeeping troops which it can commission to defend and help another country to ward off a threat, how then do great powers actually behave across spatial-temporal constraints? Put simply, how do they conduct their grand strategy, geopolitics and geo-economics to merge into their Grand Strategy?

Kenneth N Waltz argued that a theory of international politics has to be predictive and parsimonious. It is the closest equivalent of grand strategy. By relying only on one independent variable, which is systemic anarchy, it should be able to predict the propensity of the balance of power, arms races, security dilemma, indeed, even the tendency of other advaries to go nuclear, or, engage in nuclear arms race.

But an international system is not an amorphous entity too. It can be bipolar, tripolar, and multipolar, or, occasionally, uni-multipolar, as when the United States was temporarily triumphant in the Cold War before China and Russia staged a come-back in the recent decades. Under which type of polarity is the international system less prone to an all-out rivalry and conflict?

This book argues that rivalry will always be endemic among the great powers. It is a constant. As they will try to maximize their powers to all extent across the whole world. But the manner and time by which conflicts can break out cannot be foretold.

Invariably, when the world has more nuclear weapons, thus allowing each power to cancel out the first launch advantage of the other side, then the world is likely to be more peaceful.

Such a view is vehemently disagreed by Scott Sagan at Stanford University who argued that more fingers on the nuclear trigger will permit the higher probability of an accidental launch. As is always the case with international politics, both academics are justified to hold their views. And, they have to own them forever. Their students can only claim to be offensive or defensive realists.

But from a moral standpoint, if peace is only possible when two or more sides are holding each other hostage with massive conventional and nuclear weapons, if not biological, chemical, radiological, space force, espionage and submarines, then the quality of peace is also highly questionable.

The theory of international politics does not have any ethical dimension or consideration at all; making it divorced and removed from the certain realm of human actions completely.

The mechanical rendition of the international system may appeal to the realist who argues that they are simply describing what is, not what should be. But all structures are human constructs too. In this sense, Kenneth N Waltz’s work could not create a powerful and compelling answer, invariably, allowing constructivists like Nicholas Onuf and Alexander Wendt to challenge the theory of structural realism as well.

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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