Interview with Kenneth WaltzPublished on by Luis Simón and Kenneth Waltz
LS: Much of the current debate in international politics focuses on the rising powers: China, India, Brazil, and so on. How seriously should we take the emergence or, in some cases, re-emergence, of these countries?
KW: The rising powers are rising, but they are ‘major’ not ‘great’ powers. It seems to me that war is becoming more impossible. I do not mean skirmishes, but real war. This means that international politics is quite boring. If the rising powers continue to the status of great powers, then international politics will become more interesting.
LS: What are the main threats and challenges to the United States’ power in the next two decades?
KW: Gentle and slow decline. It is going to take a while but it is going to be gentle and slow.
LS: Yes, but how slow? I mean, after their defeat in the American War of Independence everyone thought the British Empire was going to decline. But the British dusted themselves off and their power rose higher than ever, allowing them a great run for almost another two centuries. Is American decline inevitable?
KW: Rome also had a good run. Great powers never last forever. The United States’ population is dropping as a share of the world’s population, for example. China is rising slowly but it will become a great power, even if it will take a long time. But one cannot say that anymore – time is speeding up because of the tremendous advances in transport and communication. Things used to move very slowly but now changes occur fast. That said, great powers do not really have to be equal to be rivals. I and others once wrote about a bipolar world between the United States and the Soviet Union, and there was a truly intense competition for a long time, but the Soviets had half the power of the United States. The Soviet Union put up a truly impressive fight but it had half the gross domestic product of the United States.
LS: You mentioned China. What are the implications of the rise of China for the United States and for the stability of the international system?
KW: If China keeps growing economically then it will be a major power in the world, however, it will be a long time before it surpasses the United States and causes a genuine reversal of global power relations. It will take a long time for the United States to decline and for a new major power – that is, power in all respects – such as China to rise. A change to the international system may occur in your lifetime but not in mine. China will continue to rise unless internal problems such as political disruptions or, more likely, economic difficulties, surface. Quality of life issues such as pollution are also critical for the country and its population. I was there in 2004 and you had to travel miles before you could breathe easily. I am sure the problem is much worse now.
LS: The United States also enjoys important geopolitical advantages over China. It is guarded by the world’s two greatest oceans and enjoys the benefits of having small and friendly neighbours. China, for its part, is surrounded by a good number of great powers (Japan, Russia, India) and many potential enemies.
KW: I completely agree. And apart from this that you mention, the Chinese have all sorts of problems. Driving in Beijing is a nightmare and traffic jams are a major drain on their economy. Children used to be China’s safety net but there is no state welfare system in the country. Of course, the United States has demographic problems too. When I grew up, the United States had a population of 150 million people but now it is 300 million. Like Beijing, it is a nightmare to drive in Washington.
LS: What should the United States do to avoid being overtaken by China in the long-run?
KW: Pull its socks up. Decline implies great trouble – decline can be slowed but it is very hard to reverse. The United States is in the very early stages of decline, but there is a long ride ahead. Rising powers such as China and India are on the horizon.
LS: Moving onto Russia…Why has the so-called ‘reset’ of United States-Russia relations failed and can it succeed in the future?
KW: Russia is no longer a great power so it is not really that important. The problems associated with Russia are routine problems in international affairs. I see nothing special about relations with Russia. Are there any big outstanding issues? What would the United States achieve by co-operating with Russia?
LS: Missile defence, for instance, seems to have been a stone in the shoe of American-Russian co-operation.
KW: Missile defence is a joke. It only ever works against a small number of missiles, and is futile when faced with an overwhelming large offence. We saw that in Israel. Missile defence is essentially an excuse for an increased defence budget.
LS: But the technology is changing. For instance, important progress is being achieved in the area of directed-energy systems, which could potentially help overcome the problem of an overwhelming missile offensive.
KW: That is true. But missile defence only provides security if it guarantees one hundred percent certainty. At ninety-nine percent certainty there is still a substantial risk – even one missile can inflict a lot of damage. There are wonderful budgetary reasons for developing missile defence systems. That is why there is strong interest from the military.
LS: You have argued that nuclear proliferation may have stabilising consequences upon the international system. I wonder, however, to what extent we can extrapolate the lessons from American-Soviet nuclear competition – bipolar and global in nature – to other environments. In the Middle East, for instance, the problem is not just Iran, but further proliferation down the road. We could be talking of a multipolar nuclear regional environment where the different powers are separated by just a ten-minute missile flight distance. Is not that just too risky?
KW: No one has ever attacked a country with nuclear weapons. John Mearsheimer argues that this is a dangerous assumption and Thomas Schelling became famous for arguing that nuclear weapons force a state to show more resolve than their opponents. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most instructive event in international politics since the introduction of nuclear weapons – it proves Mearsheimer and Schelling wrong. As Brodie remarked, nuclear weapons are not for fighting but preventing wars. If the United States and the Soviet Union had fought a nuclear war we would all be dead – the choice was between losing face or losing your country. Nuclear weapons are great, peace-preserving weapons.
LS: But nuclear weapons do not necessarily ‘terminate politics’. American and Soviet nuclear weapons did not eliminate geopolitical competition or proxy wars. If Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon it would give it more foreign policy leverage in the Middle East. It would become more confident. And that would have negative repercussions upon American interests in the region and upon the security of Washington’s allies.
KW: I know it is an odd thing to say, but would Iran as a nuclear power really change things? We have cases where small and weak countries have acquired nuclear capabilities and nothing changed. What would Iran do? It is one of the most status-quo powers in history and even in recent years. It has no inclination to acquire foreign territory or people. Sure, it stirs up trouble but what country does not do that? Israel does. Iran would not behave differently to other states.
LS: Let me return and end on the issue of rising powers and the changing global order. What do all these changes mean for Europe?
KW: When major powers decline they become uninteresting. Just like Athens and Sparta after the rise of Rome, Germany and France are uninteresting now. Some people are arguing how wonderful it is that Europe has become pacific, but do these people know any history? An inevitable consequence of once great powers heading towards decline is that they become more peaceful. We should expect nothing less of them.
LS: Does the European Union represent the end or mitigation of anarchy in Europe, or should we expect the return of power competition in Europe?
KW: Anarchy is the basic cause and condition of international politics and so it is present in Europe. But it does not have the same implications. Remember, Norway and Sweden split without war or fuss. In any case, who cares about anarchy in Europe? What is there to mitigate? It has already been mitigated. Countries fight, decline and become more peaceful.
In any case, Europe is not controversial. It will only become interesting when it forms a genuinely unified sovereign country, but this is not going to happen any time soon. Europe is boring and affluent. It is in a happy position, so enjoy it.