His “Other” Legacy: Kenneth Waltz’s Defense of Nuclear Proliferation

By | May 21, 2013 | No Comments

Does nuclear proliferation promote peace and stability? | Image: US Government

Does nuclear proliferation promote peace and stability? | Image: US Government

His “Other” Legacy: Kenneth Waltz’s Defense of Nuclear Proliferation

Kenneth Waltz, an IR giant, passed away last week. The professor was a mastermind mathematician and a genius logistician. A political scientist at both Berkeley and Columbia University and the founder of structural realism, he will be read by IR students for as long as there is an international system, and probably by historians once there isn’t. However, Waltz was also unabashed in his views and unwavering in the defense of theory, and thus hands down another legacy as well.

Waltz’s formal legacy will likely be overshadowed, or at least closely followed, in the public arena by his logical but ultimately dogmatic defense of the spread of nuclear weapons. The set of arguments he laid out throughout the latter half of a prolific academic career provide all the reasons states such as North Korea need to defend the legitimacy of their nuclear weapons programs. They are reasons cited almost daily by KCNA and on the pages of Rodong Sinmun.

Waltz belonged to a school of scholars who believe that the immutable forces of history and the structural constraints of the international system can be used to explain state behavior. At the most fundamental level, Waltz based his arguments on the unitary (state) model, whereby the state is made up of many parts but is approached, analyzed, and understood as one entity. As such, he posited the notion that individuals, institutions, and ideas matter little in the long run. What matters most is structure.

In the current structure, Waltz asserts, states exist in perpetual anarchy and, as a result, rely on self-help to protect their sovereignty and national security. In the age of nuclear weapons this imperative necessitates the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent, and this is especially the case for states living with an existential threat from a nuclear rival. In other words: North Korea.

Many instinctively respond that this is bad for peace and stability; however, Waltz argued stubbornly to the contrary. In a monograph entitled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better,” he used “rational deterrence theory” to contend that peace and stability would be best served by “the gradual spread of nuclear weapons.” A slow spread “is better than no spread or rapid spread,” he argued, writing:

Nuclear weapons have been the second force working for peace in the post-war world. They make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons. Nuclear weapons have helped main­tain peace between the great powers and have not led their few other possessors into military adventures.

Building on this argument in a debate with Scott Sagan in 2007 (moderated by Richard Betts), Waltz declared that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a fail-safe way for any country to protect its “vital interests,” meaning its sovereignty.

If a country has nuclear weapons, it will not be attacked militarily in ways that threaten its manifestly vital interests. That is 100 percent true, without exception, over a period of more than fifty years.

This defense of proliferation would later be adopted by North Korea in defense of its own nuclear program. A Rodong Sinmun editorial published on April 24, entitled “Nukes and Peace,” justifies the development of nuclear weapons for peace, prosperity, and happiness, against the threat posed by the “American imperialists” and their allies. A few quotes from the article suffice to show the close connection between Waltz’s logic and North Korea’s successful pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability:

Esteemed comrade Kim Jong-un stated the following: “In mighty nuclear power there is peace, there is prosperity, and there is also the happy lives of the people.” [경애하는 김정은동지께서는 다음과 같이 말씀하시였다. “강위력한 핵무력우에 평화도 있고 부강번영도 있으며 인민들의 행복한 삶도 있습니다.”]

Amid the vortex of endless war, our people have never once enjoyed a peaceful life. Starting with the 1969 “Focus Retina” operation, the US imperialists have staged war exercises with several different names annually for over forty years. In the current century, while branding us part of an “axis of evil,” they have made us a target for preemptive nuclear attack and applied the whole gamut of threats and blackmail. [끝없는 전쟁의 와중속에서 우리 인민은 언제 한번 평화로운 생활을 마음껏 누려보지 못하였다.미제는 1969년 “포커스 레티너”작전으로 시작하여 여러가지 이름의 전쟁연습을 장장 40여년동안 해마다 감행하였다.현세기에 들어와서는 우리를 “악의 축”으로 지명하면서 핵선제공격대상에 올려놓고 온갖 위협과 압살공세를 가하였다.]

It’s worth noting that the article frames the polemic against US imperialism and the defense of North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons within the new “Byungjin line” (병진로선; the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the civilian economy). What’s better for economic development than stability and peace: the consequences of proliferation, according to Waltz? Though he never wrote an article defending North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, like he did for Iran, it is likely that for as long as the North Korean state survives, Waltz’s “other” legacy will help it to do so.

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  1. Nicely done. Waltz was asked specifically about whether the DPRK bucks the trend that he posits in an interview with the Diplomat last year, to which he responded equivocally:

    “It is true that North Korea has been up to some nefarious business. But it is important to keep in mind that this is not a break with tradition. The Kim regime has been engaged in terrorism and provocation for decades—you may recall that North Korea was responsible for the assassination of several South Korean cabinet ministers in 1968 [sic*]. So, it is true to say that North Korea has not become completely pacific [sic] since acquiring its own nuclear weapons. But I also do not think it has become much more aggressive. In fact, it has been remarkably constant in its tendency to harass the South.”


    *Would have meant the 1983 Rangoon bombing rather than the 1968 Blue House raid.

  2. An appropriate addition to the above, indeed. Thanks for the link and the quote, Matthew.

    The thing I didn’t point out in the article, but I will here, is that Waltz’s theory (and all major IR theories, as far as I know) are entirely retrospective. Waltz’s proliferation-peace theory only has legs because it is based on a knowable past. When talking about anything other than legacies and justifications, I think it is much more useful to apply Scott Sagan’s understanding (highlighted in the interview linked to above) of how nuclear weapons have been managed (or mismanaged) and the implications this has for proliferation.

  3. Yes, Waltz’s analysis is just that: explanatory but not a guide for the substance of policy.
    Following the link to that debate, Sagan’s terms “proliferation fatalism” and “deterrence optimism” are incisive.
    Do you think you would concur with the giants of IR being Waltz, Hans Morgenthau, Henry A. Kissinger, Samuel P. Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski per the NYT obituary?

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