On Interdependence

A Globe
On Interdependence - Kenneth Waltz

In October 1999, the Bologna Center and the International Relations Pro­gram of the University of Bologna, Forli, organized a special lecture series on "Realist Theory and International Relations," which was delivered by Professor Kenneth Waltz. What follows is an edited transcript of his second lecture, "On Interdependence." While this was his first visit to the Bologna Center, Professor Waltz is no stranger to SAIS; as a young Oberlin College student, he spent time at the School when it was still in its Florida Avenue location. Professor Waltz, presently adjunct professor at Columbia Univer­sity, is one of the most distinguished theorists of international relations theory and author of the classic book, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analy­sis.

- Dr. Thomas Row, SAIS, Bologna Center


The spread of democracy is not enough to create a state of peace in the world; nor is interdependence, the propulsive power of the profit motive, or opti­mism in the future. Norman Angell exemplified the sense of interdependence before World War I in his book, The Great lllusion1, in which he showed war would not occur where it would not pay. And, of course, not long afterward, World War I occurred.

The theory of complex interdependence, a further tightening of the eco­nomic screw, is strengthened by the globalization of the 1990s. Successive in­creases in interdependence suggest that the more countries lock themselves to­gether economically, the costlier it will be to fight a war, and the less we expect wars to occur. This is plausible; if states see wars as costly, they are less likely to fight them. The question is not whether or not interdependence tends in this direc­tion, but rather, how strong the effect of interdependence actually is.

First, I want to raise the question of what the effects of interdependence are. They are ambiguous. There are some good effects. The wider the area across which trade is conducted and the higher the volume of trade, the more people benefit from the division of labor and experience increased economic well being. However, there are also negative effects. In War Before Civilization2, Lawrence Keeley concludes that as tribes began to trade goods with each other, incidents of war began to occur more frequently. Ever since Plato, utopias have been set in isolation from other peoples. Island civilizations allowed people to develop unique qualities, uncontaminated by others. The lack of interaction with others prevented conflict and violence.

Interaction may lead to complete integration and penetration, transform­ing anarchy into hierarchy. In this case, integration also rules out international war. It is the gray area between isolation and integration where world interdependence plays a role, where people from different states have contact with one another but are not integrated and are not united under a reliable authority.

Second, we must address the effects of the inequalities of nations on inter­dependence. There is the tendency to talk about interdependence across the globe as though we are all of one piece. This obscures the fact that states with differing capabilities and levels of resources fare differently in the world. Interde­pendence is a euphemism used to disguise dependence. I recall one of my stu­dents asking me, "Why do American officials and professors always talk about interdependence? We Frenchmen know that you do not depend on us, we de­pend on you." Why indeed? In a 1970 article, "The Myth of National Interdependence3,"I described interdependence as an American ideology that disguises the fact that there are high degrees of dependence on the part of some countries. It is politically convenient for the least dependent or the most independent country to describe everything as "interdependence."

The climax of the issue of interdependence is the concept of asymmetrical interdependence, the fact that some states are strong and some are weak. This difference is well illustrated in Susan Strange' s book, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy4. She points out that, internationally, the authority of governments tends to be transferred to the market. However, she also points out that the authority of governments tends to overrule the caution of the markets. It may be that the authority of governments tends to slip away into the hands of financiers and traders, but when states notice the market usurping the authority of their governments, the politically and economically strong states try to recapture it.

Third, interdependence is a weak force, not a strong force. Two illustrations are the most conclusive. First, the various parts of the Soviet Union were not interdependent; they were integrated. All viable countries are fairly closely inte­grated, and the Soviet Union was especially integrated due to the state planning that created the union. The costliness of breaking apart is supposed to make for a kind of cohesive peacefulness, and yet the Soviet Union split apart, even at a great cost. Extensive economic integration created with the goal of Communism in mind could not hold the country together.  

Another example is Yugoslavia. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was done at great cost to the well being of the people in that area. Interdependence and integration proved to be weak forces in the face of religious commitment and ethnic differences; even security interests were sacrificed. Under some circum­stances, integration and interdependence cannot hold an entity together.

On International Institutions and Interdependence

I take NATO as my example of an institution that brings the meaning, the force, the effect, and the usefulness of the concept of international institutions into question. NATO has not only survived, but has flourished and expanded. It has done so in spite of realists saying at the end of the Cold War that the years of NATO were numbered. I expected, as any realist would expect, that upon win­ning the victory, the alliance would fall apart. It is a cliche of history, a theoretical warrant, that winning kills alliances.

The balance of power theory says that if there is a dominant state or group of states, other states begin to counterbalance them by forming a coalition. This happened twice during the Napoleonic era. In World War I and II, the coalitions that won the wars fell apart on the morrow of the victory. So it was not strange to predict that after the Cold War, NATO would dwindle and disappear.

Although the nearly three thousand bureaucrats of NATO would like the organization to continue, this is not an explanation for the continuation of NATO. NATO is a treaty entered into by states, and it is states that have to agree and decide to keep the institutions, not the bureaucrats. Yet NATO not only survives, it expands. On the surface, it would seem to call a realist perspective into ques­tion, but I do not think it does. States establish and sustain institutions because they think those institutions will serve their purposes. NATO was established because one state, and a set of states associated with that state, thought that it would serve their purposes.

So why did NATO expand in spite of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of European states? NATO is expanding for one reason and one reason only - be­cause the United States wants it to expand. The institution does not form the interest in one state, or a small group of states, decides what happens to the institution. These states decide whether or not institutions will be established, whether or not they will continue, whether or not they will be changed, and whether or not they expand. NATO expanded because the United States thought, perhaps mis­takenly, that the expansion of NATO would serve American interests.

The United States wants NATO to survive and flourish because it is not otherwise directly involved in European economic institutions. America's only way of continuing its influence and control in Europe is through military means. The flourishing of NATO is America's intended way of maintaining its grip on European foreign and military policies. Think of another institution now forty years old, the Western European Union. The Western European Union has been looking for a role for the last forty years and has not found one. When it seemed to be moving toward developing a role for itself after the Cold War, the Bush administration made it clear it did not want a separate distinct decision-making entity within Europe.

My fourth point concerns the balance of power. It doesn't look as though a balance of power is in process. Instead of developing autonomy in relation to the United States, Europe is simply complying with it, much as it did through those many years of the Cold War. Why? Balance of power theory would lead one to expect a move by Europe to establish a greater degree of autonomy. Brent Scowcroft in "Geopolitical Vertigo and the U.S. Rule5" has said that the balance of power applies only to certain special periods of history. We are now out of one of those special periods of history, and the balance of power is obsolete.

State leaders have discovered they don't have to play the balance of power politics game. They have known for hundreds of y ears that it is a costly game to play, but only recently have they learned that there is no obligation to play it. If enough leaders of enough important states refusing to play, then that kind of politics becomes obsolete. The end of the Cold War, supposedly, has transformed international politics.

Michael Mastanduno in International Security6 wrote that we can go on and on for a great many years with the United States as the dominant world power without other states reacting, an anomaly in international politics indeed. It is problematic how long United States hegemony would have to go on before real­ists would cave in and say they were wrong. Mastanduno, however, does con­clude that eventually power will balance power.

I would like to look at the question from another angle. Balances of power do not form quickly. For example, a balance of power against Hitler did not form until 1941-1942; years after the war had begun, and after the United States had entered the war on the side of the Allies. States only balance when they must. Balances are difficult to form and costly. States are often tempted to jump on the bandwagon and appease instead of fighting a war. Going against a country that looks like it may be the winner will cost a lot of arms, effort, and lives.

Secondly, earlier great wars left enough major powers standing to pro­vide the materials for forming anew balance of power. In a bipolar world, if one of the countries representing one of the poles disappears, by definition there is only one great power left. If that one great power is going to be balanced, it requires some other country lifting itself to the level of that one great power. It is extremely difficult for two or more countries to come together to balance a great power in a nuclear world because, as Charles de Gaulle said, nuclear weapons don't add up. A nuclear power that allies itself with another nuclear power at the strategic level does not become strategically stronger.

On The European Union

The European Union has no intention or capability of balancing the United States because it does not have the capability to make foreign and military policy. Some think it is moving in that direction, but no one thinks it has arrived. Balanc­ing is not inevitable. The outstanding present day case is the Western Hemi­sphere. North America has dominated South America for seemingly forever, illustrating the point that balances do not always form.

There has to be a recognizable European military and foreign policy for it to emerge as a great power, which does not now exist. Statements from the European Union by a variety of people have indicated over and over again that European foreign policy is a policy made by consensus. If a foreign policy is made by consensus, it is a lowest common denominator policy. There is not much one can do with a foreign policy unless it is backed with military capabilities. Unless European forces develop there can be no European military policy and no Euro­pean foreign policy.

If Europe does achieve a political unity that comprehends foreign and defense policy as well as economic, legal, and social policy, it will then be capable of acting. If this does occur, Europe would emerge very quickly as one of the great powers of the world along with the United States. Europe has everything it needs to be a great power in the world except effective political unity. That's all it lacks. But that's a big lack.

On The Balance of Power

But a balance of power is forming; it is forming in East Asia right before our eyes. It is a balance of power being built up and created by the actions of two obvious countries: the People's Republic of China and Japan, and it is forming just the way balance of power theory would lead one to expect. The preponderant power scares the other power. China could not now engage in warfare with Japan and expect to win. Chinese policy now is a very steady, very purposeful pouring of resources into the military. Since the 1950's it has been deemed con­stitutional for the Japanese to have defense forces. It was also deemed constitu­tional for the Japanese to have nuclear weapons as defensive forces. Japan is one of the countries capable of deciding when it will have nuclear weapons, as some of its leaders have said.

The United States cannot stop the formation of a counter to its own power. However, the United States can make it happen more quickly or more slowly. If the United States behaves in a way that bears out its 1992 Defense Department planning document, in which it is said that the policy of the United States will be to prevent other industrial countries from challenging it in any way, then others will react against the United States and form a balance against it.

At this point, the United States has virtually no vital interest that can be militarily threatened in the foreseeable future by any other state or combination of states. This means that the United States does not have to react when something happens in the world. We did not have to respond to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or to the situation in the Balkans. The United States in its foreign policy acts on its own whim; it is not required to get involved. This is not a comfortable situation for other countries that wonder if the United States will continue to protect them.

According to Charles Kegley, former president of the International Stud­ies Association, if the world once again becomes a multi-polar world, realists will have been proved correct. The world is slowly becoming multi-polar. It is occur­ring slowly because balances of power generally form slowly, and because there is a gap between the United States and the next possible competitor. The United States has a tremendous capability, built up over time. It has a large gross domes­tic product and is able to maintain a tremendous military force while spending a relatively small percentage of its gross domestic product on defense. This means that the process of developing a counterbalance to the United States will be diffi­cult and very long. In the end the balance may be restored by Western Europe, China, or by Japan.

On The International Political Structure

After World War II, the United States wanted to bring its troops home and did so very quickly, a clear indication that the United States intended to main­tain foreign involvement only for as long as necessary. Having withdrawn Ameri­can forces, America sent them back to Europe in response to the threat of the Soviet Union. Once the United States began intervening, it found it extremely difficult to stop. Now the United States is in a situation in which it wants to maintain its deep involvement but may find it increasingly difficult to do so. The question is: will other states want American involvement or will they want to begin to develop and maintain a greater autonomy? Whereas before America wanted to get out and had to stay in, now it wants to stay in. Yet the time may come when it will have to get out, to do less for other countries and let them do more for themselves.