Book Review

"Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis" by Kenneth N. Waltz

  • New York
  • Columbia University Press
  • 1959

Kenneth N. Waltz in Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis assesses arguments of various social philosophers that attempt on one hand to explain the nature and cause of war and on the other to offer prescriptions that aim to reduce war. Waltz — in noting that attempts to eliminate war have produced no longstanding solution — asks if wars are “natural occurrences whose control is beyond the wit of man”, and if not, then, “Can man in society best be understood by studying man or by studying society”? The author examines these questions more closely in an effort to understand the complexity of the nature of war. Waltz persuasively asserts — in contrast to most attempts to explain the nature of international conflict, which point to a single predominant causal factor for war — that “the possible interrelation of causes makes the problem of estimating the merit of various prescriptions more difficult still”. The author compellingly establishes a contextual framework for the nature of war that emphasizes an amalgamation of — rather than distinctions among — the predominant schools of social philosophy that attempt to answer the question of the cause of war.

An undeniable strength of Waltz’s argument pertains to the straightforward nature of his theoretical approach — to ask the essential question of what causes war and then to assess the explanations that have been provided to date. The author contends that these explanations correspond to three distinct “images” of international relations — the first pertaining to human nature, the second to the internal structure of states, and the third to the anarchical system of sovereign states. Waltz contends that with a proper understanding of the “three images” and of the complex nature of their interrelatedness in producing international conflict, it may be possible to produce a more accurate understanding of the nature of war and therefore of how to address its causes. The author sets out then to examine the various schools of thought underpinning the three images of international relations in a painstaking effort to explain — despite the relevance of human nature, the internal structure of states, and the international state system to any discourse about the nature of war — why each image taken alone provides an inadequate framework for pondering such questions.

First, then, Waltz analyzes attempts to view war as the product of “the nature and behavior of man…from misdirected aggressive impulses, from stupidity”. He further distinguishes within this “image” the optimists — thinkers such as Norman Angell and Bertrand Russell that believe in the capability of humans to overcome deficiencies in their nature — and the pessimists — those like Reinhold Niebuhr and St. Augustine who view such deficiencies as irreparable. Common to all “first image” thinkers nonetheless is their sentiment that “the evilness of men, or their improper behavior, leads to war; individual goodness, if it could be universalized, would mean peace”. Waltz responds to such contentions with a cohesive argument suggestive of a tendency of “first image” thinkers “to exaggerate the causal importance of human nature” because after all, “human nature is so complex that it can justify every hypothesis we may entertain”. The author’s analysis logically suggests then that to achieve a more accurate understanding of the nature of war, one must look to the structure of states — those entities whose name international war is traditionally fought in.

Waltz then analyzes those arguments that comprise the “second image” of international relations — those viewpoints that conceive of war as a product of the internal structure and domestic strife within states and therefore prescribe internal reform of states to reduce international conflict. He confronts then, first and foremost, liberal views — the non-interventionism espoused by Immanuel Kant or Richard Cobden on one side and the interventionism advocated by Woodrow Wilson, for instance, on the other. Waltz effectively presents such views — in the case of Wilson, the contention that “national self-determination is to produce democracy, and democracies are by definition peaceful” — as inherently dependent on unproven and naively construed assumptions. Waltz compellingly points out that in the case of Wilson’s argument, it is unfair to assume that the necessary shared values among states exist to make such a system work, nor that states can be perfected — notions that when examined closely are not strongly supported.

The author goes on to effectively present the logical pitfall of “second image” analyses of war — notably liberal and socialist revisionist arguments. This school of arguments, as Waltz points out, tends to rest on the assumption that since “bad states lead to war…that good states mean peace in the world,” which a close examination shows “is an extremely doubtful proposition”. The author presents an effective point, likening concerns of the “first image” to those of the “second image”: Arguments within these schools of thought are not wrong but incomplete, rather, without first establishing the significance of the international context as it pertains to human nature and individual states, respectively.

Waltz continues then with an analysis of arguments falling within the “third image” of international relations — a conception emphasizing the system of “many sovereign states, with no system of law enforceable among them, with each state judging its grievances and ambitions according to the dictates of its own reason or desire” in which “conflict, sometimes leading to war, is bound to occur”. The author asserts through various historical examples of interstate conflict that this anarchical environment inherently necessitates that states work towards a favorable balance of power because of the unpredictable nature of international relations — which in no way bars physical force as a means for states to pursue national goals. Thus, “the peace strategy of any one country must depend on the peace or war strategies of all other countries”. Waltz then agrees with “third-image” notions of the inevitability of war within the anarchical system of sovereign states.

However, he presents an effective argument against prescriptive notions of world government as an answer to war on the basis that — like arguments based on the first and second “images” — such notions are founded on inadequate analyses that fail to account for the complexity of the nature of war, which Waltz argues includes all three “images” of international relations. After all, “it is of course true that with world government there would no longer be international wars, though with an ineffective world government there would no doubt be civil wars”. Waltz persuasively illustrates that shortsighted “third-image” analyses which see world government alone as an effective means to end war are utopian conceptions that fail to account for basic elements of the nature of war — namely human nature and the internal structure of states.

Waltz’s analysis of the nature of war logically comes full circle then, effectively suggesting that any of the “three images” taken alone are insufficient to reach a full understanding of the causes of war. Any argument that aims to address the causes of war must then analyze the “forces in world politics” — characterized by the first and second “images” of human nature and the internal organization of states — within the greater framework of the “third image” of international anarchy, which will allow then for an assessment of the significance of such forces in determining international policy. In other words, Waltz holds that statesmen may best approach the problem of war by examining human nature and its interactions with socio-political institutions while simultaneously recognizing the anarchical context which frames the reaction of those forces upon one another.

Waltz in Man, the State and War surely reaches the goal of isolating the factors that underpin international conflict. He adequately substantiates his claims with thorough philosophical examination, supplemented throughout with compelling historical examples. The author’s assessment of the theoretical answers given to the question of the nature of war is effective and well articulated within the organized and fluid structure of the book. While Waltz does not formulate a theory on international relations here, he makes a comprehensive and resolute effort to chip away at the inadequacies of present conceptions of war while simultaneously providing the potential basis for a theory of war that focuses on the interactions among human nature, the internal structure of states, and the anarchical system of states. Persuasive in his argument, Waltz establishes just how little we know about the nature of war and provides therefore an accurate framework with which to examine it further.


  1. Waltz, Kenneth N. Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

QR Code
QR Code review_of_man_the_state_and_war (generated for current page)