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Juxtaposing Social Theory by Wendt with Theory by Waltz in IR

Two books published within a 20-year gap helped shape and reshape the world politics we understand today. In his pathbreaking 1979 book Theory of International Politics (hereafter Theory), Kenneth Waltz introduced us to a systemic neorealist international relations theory.

Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics (hereafter Social Theory), published in 1999, thoroughly examined international politics based on ideas. The two books have different approaches, ontological stances, and methods to understand and study the world.

Kenneth Waltz vs Alexander Wendt

While Waltz’s work provides a first-comprehensive effort by an international relations scholar to present an all-encompassing theory of international politics, Wendt’s holistic approach to studying IR challenges the former by providing a theory based on social constructivism.

In this review essay, I juxtapose Wendt’s Social Theory with Waltz’s Theory to understand how they compare with one another—both in their theoretical dispensation and international outcomes.

Waltz’s Theory is a systematic study of international politics. He wrote at a time when there was a preponderance of reductionist theories that concentrated causes at the individual or national level (p. 18). He attempts to provide a systemic theory of international politics that explains “international political outcomes” (p. 38).

Explanation vs Understanding of the World

Drawing heavily on rationalist economic scholarship, Waltz distinguishes between a law and a theory. He writes that while “laws are facts of observation”, a theory is a “picture, mentally formed, of a bounded realm or domain of activity” (pp. 3-8). For him, a theory is not an “edifice of truth”. It is not even a reproduced reality, but it is something that explains outcomes.

Waltz writes that any theory’s greatest strength lies in its “explanatory power” (p. 12). Waltz also outlines a list of steps one needs to use while building and testing a theory. He writes, “A theory has explanatory and predictive power. A theory also has elegance” (p. 69).

Writing at the end of the cold war and the subsequent “unipolar moment”, Alexander Wendt proposes an alternative way of making sense of world politics (Krauthammer 1990). It was when most of the mainstream theories of international politics could not explain the end of the cold war, the formation of the European Union, and the rise of the US unipolarity.

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social theory | Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

It was also then that constructivist scholarship peaked as an alternative to rationalist approaches. Wendt writes from a constructivist perspective based on two tenets: One, that shared ideas shape structures of human association; Two, that identities and interests are constitutive in nature (pp. 1-7).

Wendt’s Social Theory proposes to present a theory of international relations based on social construction. Wendt’s theory is based on “thin constructivism” that presents a middle path between rationalism and postmodernism (Adler 1997).

Wendt wants to build a theory based on ideational factors rather than material and a holistic worldview rather than the individual. Therefore, he takes the rationalist epistemology while retaining post-positivist ontology.

Waltzian Rationalism vs Wendt’s Reflectivism

While Waltz is a rationalist driven by economic principles, Wendt is a reflectivist driven by ideational factors. Waltzian Theory sees the structure of the international system based on the distribution of material capabilities, as they seek the world through the rationalist sense, whereas Wendt’s Social Theory view the world as composed of the distribution of ideas. This ontological and epistemological difference makes up the starting point for understanding Waltz and Wendt.

Despite these differences, Waltz and Wendt assert that their theories are systemic. For Waltz, a systemic theory is a theory that deals with the international system and not the nation-state.

These theories explain why certain states behave similarly—and differently, what constraints enable them to act that way and what outcomes such behaviour can cause. The system consists of both agents (interacting units) and the structure (those factors that constrain behaviour) (pp. 72-74).

Here, Waltz outlines two factors in how structures affect behaviour in the system: One, through the socialisation of actors, and second, through competition among them. Wendt’s theory of social construction is holistic in nature, rather than individualistic. His theory begins with many premises that are the same as Waltz’s. However, his primary thrust and conclusion differ from that of Waltzian Theory.

Wendt writes: “Materialist and individualist commitments lead Waltz to conclude that anarchy makes international politics a necessarily conflictual, ‘self-help’ world. Idealist and holist commitments lead me to the view that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’” (p. 6).

Wendt divides this work into two separate parts, with the first contributing to social theory and the second dealing with international politics based on social theory.

social theory
theory | Photo by Bernardo Lorena Ponte on Unsplash

The international system is “anarchic.”

In Waltz’s Theory, structures are based on three elements: ordering principle, differentiation of units and specialisation of their functions, and distribution of capabilities across units.

First, in Waltz’s world, the ordering principle is an anarchic system (a system without world government). The self-help principle forms and maintains these systems, where each seeks to ensure survival (p. 91). And survival is a prerequisite for all other goals that states may have.

Second, states are the units that make up the international system. Regardless of the regime type, they are seen as the basic unit of the international order, as they perform the same functions. Third, since states are seen as units of an anarchic system, these states can only be distinguished by their capabilities for performing similar tasks.

The distribution of capabilities should not be understood as something restricted to just the unit level but as something that exists systemwide. Therefore, the polarity concept distinguishes between bipolarity and multipolarity. It also posits that states behave to maximise their security, not power.

“Anarchy is what you make of it.”

Wendt’s Social Theory concerns the “fundamental assumptions of social inquiry: the nature of human agency and its relationship to social structures, the role of ideas and material forces in social life and the proper form of social explanations” (pp. 1-6).

For Wendt, things do not exist alone; they exist because we give specific meaning to their existence. His theoretical frame dismisses the Waltzian essentialist argument about anarchy, and contends that international politics is intersubjective. He notes that identities and interests play an important role in international politics.

For Waltz, the role of the theory is to “explain” the international outcomes, whereas, for Wendt, the theory’s role is to help “understand” the world.

Unlike the “thick” critical constructivists, who question the primacy of the state, Wendt takes the state as the unit of analysis in his theory. He writes that states are still “the primary unit of analysis for thinking about the global regulation of violence” (p. 9). Even while non-state actors are gaining much importance today, Wendt contends that “system change ultimately happens through states” (p. 9).

Like Waltz, Wendt is not interested in states’ foreign policy but in international politics. Wendt’s theory is based on ideational ontology and positivist epistemology. He explains why “constructivism should be construed narrowly as an ontology, not broadly as an epistemology” (p. 41).

Taking a dig at Waltz’s systemic theory, Wendt argues that Waltz is essentially an individualist, even as he claims to be presenting a structural theory. For Waltz, states are like firms; the international system is a market within which states cooperate (p. 16). It is not holistic like other structural theorists.

Therefore, Wendt notes that his theory is weaker as it draws on the micro-economic analogy of firms and markets. Moreover, markets are not all that Waltzian realist claim. Some believe that markets are as much based on shared ideas. The social relations that govern markets, friendship, and enmity are left out in Waltzian realism.

For instance, why do we not worry about all nuclear weapons equally? As an example of nuclear weapons, Wendt notes that we do not fear Britain even when it possesses thousands of nuclear weapons, as much as we fear North Korea with about 5-6 nuclear weapons. Why? Wendt responds that it is because of our intersubjective understanding of the world around us.

While the Americans consider the United Kingdom their friend, they consider North Korea an enemy. Therefore, our intersubjective understanding of the other is essential in explaining why we behave the way we do. So, if all things are our intersubjective understanding, Wendt argues, “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt 1992).

Waltz’s realism has also left out interactions between states as something left for foreign policy analysts to study. For instance, Waltz is very particular about the separation between international political theory and the theory of foreign policy. However, what gets left out in this distinction is the “international interactions”—where do you place them?

Since the structural realists assume that all interaction is foreign policy interaction, they do not seek to study. Foreign policy analysts also leave out international interactions as something beyond the scope of their research.

Wendt notes that “individualism, materialism, and neglect of interaction” form the basis of criticism mated on Waltzian Theory (p. 17). In this spirit, Wendt writes Social Theory as an alternative international relations theory.

Waltz’s work argues that bipolarity is the best for the international system, as it keeps wars cold. With two predominant powers in the system, there will be no need to satisfy their coalition partners, reducing miscalculations.

In Waltz’s Balance of Power system based on bipolarity, there will be a situation of self-dependence of parties, clarity of dangers, and certainty of who is to respond to them.

For Waltz, bipolarity is what leads to a stable world. But that is not enough, Waltz adds. Waltz writes that states must acquire nuclear weapons for extended peace to sustain. Deterrence is easily achieved with nuclear weapons. He notes that nuclear weapons dissuade the state from going into full-fledged wars, with the fear of escalation into a nuclear war.

However, one of the critical departures in such an understanding arose after the Cold War. Waltzian realism could not explain the structural change in international politics. Wendt argues that Waltzian realism is too “underspecified to generate falsifiable hypotheses” (p. 17). For example, realist scholars are too quick to characterise any foreign policy behaviour as balancing behaviour, thereby causing systemic balances.

Wendt argues that all neorealism is based on the premise of anarchy—the notion that anarchy is a self-help system. Since it is a self-help system, states are egoistic about their security.

But, as in the example of understanding nuclear weapons, we see that sometimes the states are egoistic, and other times, they are not. This variation of the states will cause a change in the “logic” of anarchy, argues Wendt (p. 18).

Discussing his “three cultures of anarchy” in Chapter 6 of Social Theory, Wendt explains that anarchy does not necessarily cause egoistic state behaviour but that anarchy itself is shaped by cultural and ideational rather than material factors. He argues that three kinds of anarchies are based on shared ideas of representing the Self and the Other.

Wendt notes that states imagine and identify themselves with the Other in three roles: enemy, rival, and friend. He argues three “macro-level cultures of anarchy” in international politics (p. 43).

They are Hobbesian anarchy (where each state is fighting every other state), Lockean anarchy (where each is competing with the other), and Kantian anarchy (where each is living peacefully with the other). He further notes that present-day society is moving beyond Lockean anarchy toward Kantian anarchy.

While Waltz’s Theory claims to be the theory of international politics, even as much of the subject in work is great power politics, one may ask: what about not-so-great powers? Do they not belong to the international system? Is their absence warranted? Or is international politics, as Stanley Hoffman put it, “an American social science” (Hoffmann 1977)? His theory does not discuss the decolonisation of the rest of the world until recently under Western imperial rule. Therefore, Waltz’s book title may be misleading.

However, this is not to say that Theory itself must be ignored. Waltz’s work has had such a profound influence on IR scholarship that much of what was produced by the later scholars was, in some sense, an engagement with the way Waltz (mis)understood international politics.

Wendt believes that Waltz asked the right questions about the international system but came to the wrong conclusions.

Wendt’s Social Theory should be treated as a philosophical and theoretical interaction with Waltz’s Theory. Unlike Waltz, Wendt draws heavily from sociology and philosophy. He discusses the agent-structure problem at length.

While Wendt’s middle-path approach is based on the ontological priority of ideational factors and epistemological primacy to positivist factors, that may be warranted, which creates its own problems.

Even as Wendt claims to be on the “understanding” side of international politics, whether we can then explain the causes in the social world is a gamble (Smith 2000). In that sense, Wendt’s social theory may become counterproductive to what it intends to challenge in the first place.

The two books under review are the most influential works ever written in international relations. They provide two different ontological and epistemological overviews of the field of IR.

While Waltz’s Theory paved the way for the neorealist strand of international relations, Wendt’s Social Theory systematically theorised international politics using the constructivist approach. Students and scholars must read these two books to understand and debate IR theory.

Books Under Consideration:

Theory of International Politics. By Kenneth N. Waltz. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1979. 251pp. $7.95.

Social Theory of International Politics. By Alexander Wendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1999. 429pp. £14.95.


  1. Adler, Emanuel. 1997. “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 3 (3): 319–63.
  2. Hoffmann, Stanley. 1977. “An American Social Science: International Relations.” Daedalus 106 (3): 41–60.
  3. Krauthammer, Charles. 1990. “The Unipolar Moment.” Foreign Affairs 70 (1): 23.
  4. Smith, Steve. 2000. “Wendt’s World.” Review of International Studies 26 (1): 151–63.
  5. Wendt, Alexander. 1992. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46 (2): 391–425.


This essay was written as a requirement for the PhD coursework in the Advanced IR Theory paper at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

For further reading:

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Theory of International Politics by Kenneth N. Waltz.

Buy the book on Amazon

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Social Theory of International Politics by Alexander Wendt.

Buy the book on Amazon

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