Structural Realism After the Cold War

This is one of a series of weekly review papers I had to write during my “Introduction to International Relations” course. It discusses Kenneth Waltz’s article Structural Realism After the Cold War, which argues that structural realism continues to be a functional model for international relations. My review was required to use the Melian Dialogue (Wikipedia, for context) as an example to argue for or against Waltz.

Waltz’s article Structural Realism After the Cold War convincingly argues that realism still applies in the world after the Cold War; that though a great many changes have taken place within the international system, the old rules still apply. If correct, it is an important argument to be made: it claims that not only will the world eventually be bipolar (as opposed to the unipolarity that the United States currently enjoys), but that the actions of the United States today are hastening that point. And while much of the specific argument is confined to the world today, his arguments about the rules of realism are well supported by such historical documents as the Melian Dialogue.

The first argument Waltz makes is that democracies are not by nature any more peaceful than other governments; that in fact they may deliberately provoke war against non-democracies. This particular point can be mildly reinforced by pointing out that Athens is indeed a democracy at the time they invade Milos. Other sub-points can be demonstrated strongly indeed: Waltz argues that powerful states and democracies tend to believe their own goals are right and just, and the Athenians explicitly say that they may expect the blessings of the Gods in taking over Milos, because the gods themselves take power whenever they can; therefore, the Athenians are acting justly in subjugating other people. Moreover, though,

Waltz continues by arguing that states are continually trying to acquire more power. This is clearly demonstrated in the actions of the Athenians: the Milosians asks why Athens would want to subjugate them at this time, and a long list of reasons is given, but none of them say why Athens should take over Milos now instead of yesterday or tomorrow. The answer is simply assumed: Athens wants more power in the world, and today they are capable of acquiring the most power most quickly by taking tribute from Milos; yesterday they were too busy and tomorrow they will have moved on to another city that possesses less wealth or is harder to conquer. Later in the paper, Waltz continues this them by describing how unipolar powers will work to prevent a balance of power forming against them. This is clear in the Athenian policy of subjugating their neighbors in “tributary alliances;” preventing any of them from working against Athens by giving them all a bond with Athens itself.

Waltz also argues that international institutions are constantly being “subverted” or influenced by national goals. This is demonstrated strongly by the Athenians, who constantly engage in “tributary alliances” with other nations, whereby the Athenians receive a ransom in coin from “allies” against the Spartans. Protecting both nations from the Spartans may (or may not) be the primary goal, but as the dominant member of the alliance, Athens feels free to further its national interest by demanding tribute. Even more explicitly, they are asked why they are demanding tribute from Milos, and in response Athens says that failing to demand tribute would inspire their internal states and other colonies to rise up in rebellion — a clear case of international politics being affected by internal ones.

Lastly, Waltz reminds his reader that realism does not say when something will happen, but only that it does. Realism claims that a balance of power will eventually emerge after that balance is upset, but it does not say how quickly that balance will emerge. And the point is a critical one: the Milosians used a balance-of-power argument in assuming that Sparta would help fight Athens, and yet Sparta did not come. Realism was proved right eventually, though: Sparta did fight Athens again, eventually even toppling it. By that time, other city-states (like Thebes) had emerged which could balance Sparta.