Mar. 28, 2000

Prof. Kenneth N. Waltz's Political Realism Wins James Madison Lifetime Achievement Award In Political Science

By Jason Hollander

Kenneth N. Waltz

Prof. Kenneth N. Waltz, adjunct professor of political science, has spent much of his scholarly career proposing controversial realist theories on the world's political climate. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he recently won the 1999 James Madison Award for "distinguished scholarly contributions to political science" from the American Political Science Association. The award is given only once every three years.

"A lot of people don't like realists," explains Waltz. "Realists face the world as it is. Most people want the world to be nicer and for people to be better."

Forty years after leaving Columbia as a newly minted Ph.D. and young faculty member, he returned to Columbia's faculty in the fall of 1997, and now focuses on testing his realist theories of international affairs, many of which have become highly debated standards in the field.

Waltz, author of the renowned 1959 work, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, recalled his reaction to winning the James Madison Award last fall.

"I was very surprised, and gratified," he says. "Realism is, to put it mildly, controversial."

Controversy has followed Waltz throughout his career, one filled with dissent and contention. As Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of Political Science, once said about Waltz, "Almost everything he has written challenges the consensus that prevailed at the time."

In 1981, at the height of the Cold War and with increasing fears of a nuclear showdown between the superpowers, Waltz published a monograph, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, his first of many proclamations arguing for the potentially positive effects of nuclear weaponry's gradual spread. He still insists on this reasoning today.

"Countries that have nuclear weapons co-exist peacefully," says Waltz, "because each knows the other can do horrendous damage to it."

When asked about the fear of rogue leaders possessing nuclear capabilities, Waltz explains, "The characteristics of these people you can't overlook is that they survive. They're ugly; they're nasty; but when it comes to the preservation of their regimes, they are not reckless." And so, they will not provoke disastrous attacks on themselves, Waltz says.

As further proof of his theory, Waltz points to a comparison of world conflicts before and after nuclear proliferation: "There's been a show of caution and moderation unlike anything you saw in a world with conventional weapons."

Waltz also disparages the idea that the United States has substantial enemies. "Never in modern history has a country been as secure as we are now," he says. "We have to invent threats. We have to dramatize them just to justify spending on defense."

Waltz says that the American media exaggerate the strength of China and other supposed adversaries. "Who's threatening us?" he asks. "North Korea? Iraq? They're not threatening us. The Chinese know they cannot invade Taiwan."

Asked why the media would perpetuate such ideas, he reveals, "The American media report whatever American policy officials tell them."

After receiving his masters and doctorate in political science from Columbia, and then teaching on campus for a short time, Waltz left New York "with regret," in 1957. Though he loved the city, the prospect of raising small children in a major metropolis did not appeal to his wife and him. Waltz has since held teaching positions at Swarthmore, Brandeis and UC-Berkeley, mixed with visiting appointments at Harvard, the London School of Economics and Peking University.

Having retired from teaching full-time at Berkeley in 1994, Waltz's decision to return to Columbia was simple. "We asked ourselves where we really wanted to live," he says. With his children now grown, returning to the place where his career got started seems a perfect bookend.

Waltz now teaches as an adjunct for one semester per year and has no problem putting his career into perspective. "I'm very pleased that I've published," he says. "I'm also pleased with my grad students, some of whom are now professors in their own right."