The anarchy of the international system according to Kenneth Waltz


Kenneth Waltz’s seminal work ‘Theory of International Politics’ laid the foundations for the neorealist paradigm in international relations theory. One of the central tenets of Waltz’s theory is the concept of international system anarchy, which has been subject to extensive debate and interpretation within academic circles. This article delves into Waltz’s perspective on anarchy, exploring its nuances, implications, and enduring relevance in the realm of global politics.

Waltz’s Conception of Anarchy

At the heart of Waltz’s theory lies the notion of anarchy, which he defines as the absence of a centralized authority or hierarchical governing body within the international system. Unlike the domestic realm, where a sovereign state exercises a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the international arena lacks an overarching power capable of regulating the behavior of sovereign states (Waltz, 1979).

Waltz draws a clear distinction between anarchy and the popular connotation of chaos or disorder. Instead, he posits that anarchy is an ordering principle of the international system, one that shapes the behavior and interactions of states (Waltz, 1979). In this anarchic environment, states operate as rational, unitary actors driven by the pursuit of self-interest and the imperative of survival.

The Self-Help System

Waltz’s conception of anarchy gives rise to a self-help system, wherein states must rely on their own capabilities and resources to ensure their security and well-being. The absence of a higher authority to adjudicate disputes or enforce rules means that states must continually assess their relative power and capabilities concerning potential threats or adversaries (Waltz, 1979).

This self-help dynamic fosters an environment of uncertainty and mistrust, as states can never be entirely certain of the intentions or future actions of other states. Consequently, states must engage in constant power calculations, balancing their capabilities against those of potential rivals or adversaries (Waltz, 1979).

The Security Dilemma

One of the central implications of Waltz’s anarchy perspective is the security dilemma, a situation in which actions taken by states to enhance their security inadvertently undermine the security of others, leading to a spiral of insecurity and potential conflict (Jervis, 1978). In an anarchic system, where states lack the assurance of others’ benign intentions, defensive measures taken by one state may be perceived as threatening by others, prompting them to engage in countermeasures, thus perpetuating a cycle of mutual suspicion and arms buildup (Jervis, 1978).

The security dilemma highlights the inherent instability and potential for conflict within the anarchic international system, as states continuously strive to achieve a favorable balance of power and enhance their relative security (Glaser, 1997).

The Balance of Power

Waltz’s theory places significant emphasis on the concept of the balance of power, which he sees as a crucial mechanism for maintaining stability and order within the anarchic international system (Waltz, 1979). According to Waltz, the balance of power operates as a self-regulating mechanism, whereby states align themselves or form alliances to counterbalance the power of potential hegemonies or dominant states (Waltz, 1979).

This balancing behavior serves as a deterrent against unchecked aggression or expansionism, as states recognize the potential consequences of disturbing the existing power equilibrium (Waltz, 1979). However, Waltz acknowledges that the balance of power is an imperfect and precarious mechanism, susceptible to miscalculations, shifts in relative capabilities, and the formation of unstable or unreliable alliances (Waltz, 1979).

The Levels of Analysis

Waltz’s theory introduces a critical distinction between the systemic level of analysis and the unit (state) level of analysis (Waltz, 1979). He argues that the anarchic nature of the international system, rather than the inherent characteristics or motivations of individual states, is the primary determinant of state behavior (Waltz, 1979).

This systemic perspective challenges the reductionist approach of analyzing international relations solely through the lens of domestic politics, ideology, or individual leaders’ personalities (Waltz, 1979). Instead, Waltz contends that the constraints and incentives imposed by the anarchic structure of the international system shape and condition the behavior of states, regardless of their internal characteristics or regime types (Waltz, 1979).

Critiques and Counterarguments

While Waltz’s anarchy perspective has profoundly influenced the field of international relations, it has also faced significant critiques and counterarguments from various theoretical perspectives.

Constructivists, for instance, challenge the notion of anarchy as an objective reality, arguing that it is a socially constructed and intersubjective phenomenon (Wendt, 1992). They contend that anarchy is what states make of it, and its effects on state behavior are contingent upon the shared understandings and norms that emerge through social interactions (Wendt, 1992).

Liberals, on the other hand, emphasize the potential for cooperation and the emergence of international institutions and regimes to mitigate the effects of anarchy (Keohane, 1984). They argue that states can overcome the security dilemma and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes through mechanisms such as international organizations, economic interdependence, and the promotion of democratic norms (Keohane, 1984).

Furthermore, critics have questioned the validity of the unitary actor assumption underlying Waltz’s theory, arguing that states are not monolithic entities but rather complex organizations influenced by domestic politics, bureaucratic interests, and internal bargaining processes (Allison & Zelikow, 1999).

Realism and Its Contemporary Relevance

Despite these critiques, Waltz’s anarchy perspective remains a foundational and influential paradigm within the realist tradition of international relations theory. Its enduring relevance stems from its ability to provide a parsimonious and compelling explanation for the enduring patterns of competition, conflict, and power struggles that characterize the international system.

In the contemporary global landscape, marked by the resurgence of great power rivalries, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the persistent threat of interstate conflict, Waltz’s insights into the dynamics of anarchy and the balance of power remain highly pertinent (Mearsheimer, 2014). The ongoing tensions between major powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia, can be viewed through the lens of Waltz’s theory, as these states engage in power balancing, alliance formation, and strategic posturing to maintain their relative positions within the anarchic system.

Moreover, the challenges posed by non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations and transnational criminal networks, can be understood as manifestations of the inherent insecurity and lack of a central authority within the international system (Byman, 2005). These actors exploit the vulnerabilities and governance gaps within the anarchic environment, further underscoring the relevance of Waltz’s perspective in contemporary global affairs.


Kenneth Waltz’s perspective on international system anarchy continues to shape the discourse and analysis within the field of international relations. While his theory has faced criticisms and challenges from alternative paradigms, its core insights into the dynamics of anarchy, the security dilemma, and the balance of power remain invaluable for understanding the enduring patterns of conflict, competition, and power struggles that define global politics.

As the international system navigates the complexities of the 21st century, Waltz’s anarchy perspective offers a robust and enduring framework for analyzing the behavior of states, the formation of alliances, and the ongoing quest for security and survival within an anarchic environment. While no single theory can capture the multifaceted nature of international relations, Waltz’s contributions remain a cornerstone of the realist tradition, providing a lens through which scholars and policymakers can comprehend the timeless challenges and imperatives that shape the conduct of states in the absence of a global leviathan.


Allison, G. T., & Zelikow, P. (1999). Essence of decision: Explaining the Cuban missile crisis (2nd ed.). Longman.

Byman, D. (2005). Deadly connections: States that sponsor terrorism. Cambridge University Press.

Glaser, C. L. (1997). The security dilemma revisited. World Politics, 50(1), 171-201.

Jervis, R. (1978). Cooperation under the security dilemma. World Politics, 30(2), 167-214.

Keohane, R. O. (1984). After hegemony: Cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton University Press.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2014). The tragedy of great power politics (Updated edition). W. W. Norton & Company.

Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics. Addison-Wesley.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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