Last updated: July 24, 2019
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Realism has
been one of most central and prominent theory of international relations since
the formal development of the discipline. Its core is based on an ancient
tradition of thought which includes thinkers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli
and Hobbes. Even though there are various and differentiated branches of modern
realist thinking, the main principles of the theory (such as statism, survival,
and self-help) remain a commonality among all the realist variations. This
essay aims at comparing two prominent authors of the field, Kenneth Waltz and
Robert Gilpin and two of their most important works, Theory of International Politics1
and War and Change in World Politics2,
in order to allow for their most important contributions to be highlighted. How
are they similar? How do they differ? And most importantly, how did they contribute
to the International Relations field? These are some of the questions which
ought to be answered.

When Robert
Gilpin published War and Change in World
Politics almost four decades ago, Realism was headed for a major revival.
Given the importance of this scholarly tradition and the degree to which other
schools of thought developed in response to it, how realism ended up
revivifying and modernizing itself would have profound consequences for the
International Relations discipline as a whole3.

 Robert Gilpin was one of the influential
thinkers of the international relations scholarship of the past half century.
However, he remains less important and renowned than his contemporary Kenneth
Waltz, due to many reasons. In a nutshell, it can be argued that the
international relations ‘paradigms’ got defined in a manner that obscured
Gilpin’s contribution4.
Following and boosting an already established trend, Robert Keohane’s work Neorealism and its Critics portrayed Waltz, not Gilpin, as definitive of contemporary realism
and as the preferred base for the development of scholarship5.
Thus, Waltz’s work thus came to trump all others as the definitive modern
restatement of realism. And because realism plays such a large role in IR ? if
only as foil for others’ work ? whoever came to be seen as definitive of that
approach and whoever came to be seen as offering the main alternatives to it
would have an outsized influence on scholarship6. And so it happened. But,
why did Waltz’s Theory of International
Politics come to be seen as the ultimate work of modern realism, rather
than Gilpin’s War and

On one hand, both
authors are undeniably realist, since their theorizing is based and reflect the
core beliefs of the realist school (even though Waltz’s theory was actually
neo-Realism). Besides, both are grounded in classical and modern works and are
firm within the state-centric tradition8.
Gilpin’s view, like that of Waltz, also seeks an accommodation with structural
It is interesting to think how at first, both titles are actually misleading.
Waltz’s book is not really a theory of international politics. It does not
address in an explicit way most of the phenomena that are encompassed by that
term. Rather, Waltz presented a theory that intended to help answer a few
important but highly general questions about international politics, such as
why the modern states system has persisted in the face of attempts by certain states at dominance; the
recurrence of balances of power; why war among great powers recurred over
centuries; and why states often find cooperation hard. In addition, the book
forwarded one more specific theory: that great-power war would tend to be more
frequent in multipolarity than bipolarity. Gilpin’s book is no less
all-encompassing and addresses a set of questions no less central to both the
realist tradition and IR more generally: how to explain change in international
politics; why defined international orders rise and decline; the causes of great
wars and long periods of peace; and the rise and decline of hegemonic great
powers. It could be argued that War and
Change actually yields more relevant, testable middle-range theories than
Waltz’s book10.

On the other
hand, there are several differences between the theorizing of both authors. The
apparent relevance of the books to the events of the day can be considered as
an important one11. At the
time of Gilpin’s book release, neither ‘war’ nor ‘change’ seemed to reflect what
seemed like a stable Cold War stalemate. By contrast, Theory of International Politics stressed the enduring verities of
international relations in general and the Cold War in particular12.
He argued that the main change in the international system over several
centuries was a shift to bipolarity after WWII, and stressed “unit-level”
processes. To him, the “units” in question are states “whose interactions form the structure of international political
systems”, and which are, in his opinion, functionally identical13.
The deep anarchic structure of world politics meant that rivalry and
cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union would remain the
central issue. Another important difference between both authors is the fact
that Waltz presented his arguments in a way that best fitted the particular
conception of social science that was just becoming fashionable among American
political scientists14.
This was the idea that the great scholarly traditions of IR such as Realism and
Liberalism should be refashioned as internally coherent scientific research
programs comprising a hard core of assumptions and a related set of scope
conditions and specific propositions15.
In other words, Waltz’s book seemed tailor-made for it while Gilpin’s did not16.
The books’ very titles give a hint: one is about the specific problem of change
and how to cope with it, while the other intents to be a comprehensive ‘theory
of international politics’. Thus, the latter is more likely to be seen as the
reformulation of realism into a scientific research program17.

 In regard to the historical background
analyzed, it can be said that War and
Change has an advantage over Waltz’s Theory. While Waltz’s empirical
references were almost solely focused in the post 17th century
European international system and its global successor, Gilpin’s analysis
included pre- and non-European international systems stretching back to
Gilpin’s book was also more comprehensive than Waltz’s in its focus and more in
depth study of the interaction between economics and politics. He claimed ‘to provide a framework for thinking about
the problem of war and change in word politics’ 19, trying to provide a
better theoretical framework for understanding war and change. But, Waltz’s Theory provided a more attractive and
convenient complement for other scholars because it possessed many attractive
features that War and Change lacked. Theory was more thoroughly ‘structural’,
operating solely at the systemic level. War
and Change created a platform which allowed for interaction between the
domestic and systemic levels. Theory
appeared to understand structure as material, while War and Change appeared to give an important role for ideas. Thus,
Waltz’s neo-Realism is arguably less concerned with change than that Gilpin’s
Realist framework of analysis20.

It might be
said that Theory of International
Relations was written in such a way as to make many things about
international relations seem to be major theoretical puzzles in need of further
scholarly explanations. The theory could be understood as saying, for example,
that domestic institutions do not matter in explaining large-scale patterns of
war and peace. Any theoretical or empirical demonstration that the nature of
domestic institutions in fact do matter in accounting for these patterns could
be considered as a major finding. The same phenomenon does not happen to
Gilpin’s writings. He is able to say new things about international politics
without seeming to deny the possibility of such a large number of easily
observable facts of international life. Gilpin’s work does not rule out a
causal role for ideas, institutions and domestic politics, but rather stress
their interaction with material power21.

Even though
they are both clearly realist works, the two books are built on very different
foundational assumptions. Waltz’s theoretical edifice
rests on the assumption that states are conditioned by the mere possibility of
conflict, while Gilpin assumes ? more in keeping with expected utility theory
and most mainstream social science ? that states make decisions based on the
probability of conflict12. Waltz’s worst-case,
possibilistic assumption was the key link between the condition of anarchy and
all the strong and counterintuitive implications about state behavior. In
Gilpin’s probabilistic world, however, states may well choose a wide variety of
strategies depending on their assessment of the probability and severity of
security threats22. In other words, they
might choose to pursue economic gain instead of security if the probability of
conflict is low, or they may choose to pursue power and prestige in the near
term in order to be more secure in the long term. Thus, for Gilpin, states do
not always ‘maximize security’ at all times and under all conditions, as Waltz
believed. Theories that ‘assume that one can speak
of a hierarchy of state objectives … misrepresent the behavior and decision-making of states’, he insists. Rather, ‘it is the mix and tradeoffs of objectives rather than their ordering
that are critical to an understanding of foreign policy’ 23.

            A last considerable
difference between both, concerns the balance-of-power theory. Waltz’s work is
built upon a thorough interpretation of this theory, which he conceived as the
‘realist’ explanation for the ‘recurrence of balance’ through international
history, by which he meant the failure of repeated bids for European or global
hegemony24. Gilpin
presented a different theory to explain the same phenomenon as Waltz. Examining
a far broader part of history, Gilpin argued that the balance of power played a
noticeably secondary role in limiting hegemonic expansion when compared to
other countervailing forces such as natural barriers and the loss-of-strength
gradient, economic and technological limits to optimal size, and domestic
Unlike the ‘apples vs oranges’ criticisms of Waltz’s balancing theory,
which tended to focus on short periods of time or fewer cases, this was a
proposition which directly contradicted Waltz, since it was able to explain a
similarly general empirical regularity over a very broad sweep of history.

In conclusion,
had IR not been tricked by the idea that grand traditions of scholarship like Realism
and Liberalism had to be translated into single theoretical ‘research
programmes’, there is every likelihood that Gilpin’s seminal treatment of war
and change would have been recognized as being every bit as definitive a reaffirmation
of realist theory as Waltz’s treatment of balance-of-power theory26.
And had that occurred, international relations research might have developed quite
differently. It might be argued that War
and Change never directly addressed the future scenario that was about to
unfold: the decline of the weaker superpower to a given hegemonic order. Instead,
the book treated the Soviet Union as the main and most dangerous challenge to
the United States, which is portrayed as in serious relative decline. It is
hard to read the book today and avoid to think that, at the time it was the
Soviet Union, not the United States, that was in steep decline and that a
peaceful change was about to happen. Would the scholarly field of international
relations be the same today if Robert Gilpin had become the main carrier of Realism
instead of Kenneth Waltz? This is a question worth asking. But,
Waltz importance, even considering all the critique and controversies, cannot
go overlooked. “Even when you disagree,
he moves your thinking ahead”27.
Both authors greatly contributed to the IR field. Instead of solely praising
one or the other, a deep understanding of both are a necessity for all of those
who wish to better understand the academic field and the reality of
international relations.

1 KENNETH, W.; “Theory of International
Politics”, Reading; MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.

2 GILPIN, R.; “War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1981.

3 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, Dartmouth
College, International Relations 25(4),
2011, p. 500.

4 Idem.

5 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, Dartmouth
College, International Relations 25(4),
2011, p. 500.

6 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, Dartmouth
College, p. 500.

7 Idem.

8 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, Dartmouth
College, p. 500.

9 DARK, K.; “The Waves of Time: Long-Term
Change and International Relations”, Bloomsbury
Academic Collections (History and Politics in the 20th century:
Multidisciplinary approaches), 2016, Great Britain, p.11.

10 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, Dartmouth
College, p. 501.

11 Idem.

12 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 501.

13 DARK, K.; “The Waves of Time: Long-Term
Change and International Relations”, p.

14 Idem.

15 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 501.

16 Idem.

17 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 501.

18 Ibdem, p. 502.

19 GILPIN, R.; “War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1981, p. 2.

20 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 501.

21 Ibdem, pp. 502 and 503.

22 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 503.

GILPIN, R.; War and Change, pp. 19 and 22.

24 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 506.

25 WOLFORTH, W.; ‘The Balance of Power in World
History’, European Journal of International Relations, 13(6), 2007, pp. 44?60
& and LITTLE, R.; KAUFMAN, S. & WOLFORTH, W.; “The Balance of Power in
World History”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

26 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and
International Relations”, p. 509.

27 MARTIN, D.; Kenneth Waltz, Foreign Relations Expert, Dies at 88″, The
New York Times, May 18 2013, consulted on the 01/21/18,