LinkedIn tracking pixel

What Causes War? An Analysis of Kenneth Waltz’s “Images”

In my own view, the most definitive exploration of the causation of timeless warfare came out in 1959 by the late (deceased 2013) Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, The State, and War. The originator of the classic “neo-realist” theory of world politics, Waltz approached war from the vantage point of three distinct categories (“images”) that had been the objects of both theoretical and practical studies throughout the ages.

Human Nature

The first image is mankind itself. Noting that war appeared to be, and was defined as, embedded somehow within man’s “nature,” Waltz concluded that the first priority in defining the subject was to explore the very essence (“nature”) of mankind itself (non-gender but we really mean “men”). In his summary of the first image, Waltz writes, “the evilness of men, or their improper behavior, leads to war; individual goodness, if it could be universalized, would mean peace: this is a summary statement of the first image.”

In concluding, however, Waltz dismissed the first image as irrelevant: “First-image optimists betray a naivete in politics that vitiates their efforts to construct a new and better world. Their lack of success is directly related to a view of man as simple and pleasing, but wrong.”

The essential problem is that “mankind” has many “natures,” of which evil is but one. In short, man is responsible for war, but equally responsible for peace. As Waltz put it, “human nature is so complex that it can justify every hypothesis that we may entertain.”

The State

Moving on, Waltz then introduces his second image, the “state.” In so doing, he argues that, since human nature is fixed and permanent, better to examine the institutions that man has created to discover the source of the issue. Unlike “nature,” moreover, these concepts can be changed: “human nature, by the terms of the assumption, cannot be changed, whereas social-political institutions can be.”

In his explanation of the second image, Waltz covers all areas of national behavior, be they democratic, dictatorship, or wars based upon ideologies, location, economies, races, or nationalities: “The examples just given illustrate in abundant variety one part of the second image, the idea that defects in states cause wars among them.”

For the second image, Waltz relies primarily on theories of the “democratic peace” that have dominated “liberal” political thought, most notably in England and America, from Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill to Woodrow Wilson. Here, democratic government is equated with economic capitalism, wherein all men are free to make decisions and where public opinion will refuse warfare as a solution to all problems between countries.

Best expressed in Wilson’s Declaration of War against Germany (1917), the idea advanced that world peace can only be maintained “by a partnership of democratic nations… no autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. What we seek, [Wilson concluded,] is the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind.”

Yet even this, Waltz concluded, was insufficient both in practice and theory. Practice aside, the theory itself was based upon a false assumption that force had been eliminated by democracy. Would we expect, he argued, that defendants “would march themselves to jail and place their heads meekly in the noose, or to pay voluntarily the very damages they had gone to court in order to avoid?”

The illusion of “war to end war,” (Wilson’s phrase) was defined by Waltz as even more dangerous than wars of “national interest.” “Bismarck [Prussian] fought nationalist wars and killed thousands, the idealists of the twentieth century fought ‘just’ wars and killed millions.”

Then we can speculate if Democracy guarantees peace. One might ask Mexico, which once owned Texas and California. Or Great Britain, which once owned about a quarter of the world.


This leaves the third image, “anarchy” in the international system. By “anarchy,” Waltz means “absence of authority,” which in World Politics has always implied a “Balance of Power” between sovereign states. That this “Balance” has led to incessant war is indisputable; that only government can change this, Waltz wrote, is equally clear: “Yet in the international as in the domestic sphere, if anarchy is the cause, the obvious conclusion is that government is the cure.”

But government cannot cure all wars, as 1861 will attest.

The Causes and Cures of Warfare

Waltz also reminds us that all three of his “images” have to be included in any theoretical analysis of both the causes and cures of warfare. He is also fond of quoting philosophers from history on behalf of the several images. Rousseau, in particular, is the favorite, especially with his proposition that “wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them.”

In examining the three images, Waltz acknowledges that all three are “utopian” insofar that a “single cause” will always be insufficient in explaining such complex phenomena as warfare. He likewise admits that the “immediate” causation of wars, in general, is “trivial” compared to the systemic and background causes that make it possible in the first place.

But in comparing the nature of all three, he has to admit that, of the three, only the third (international “anarchy”) can be labeled as a “permissive” cause that, to answer Rousseau, has the capacity to “prevent” the initial resort to armed conflict.

Also, remember that liberal democracy and capitalist economics were just one of several attempts to alter the global system: recall Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” and Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” not to mention the endless attraction of “international socialism.”


The end of war has been, since time began, the object of philosophical speculation and political grandstanding. As tomorrow’s news might relate, the issue is still open, seemingly un-asked, unanswered.

There is a phrase attributed to George Bernard Shaw that may be relevant the next time a government decides on war against another one: “There are those who see things that are and ask why. I see things that never were and ask why not.”

Woodrow Wilson failed miserably in his effort to bring about a democratic world system. Can we blame him for trying?

What’s next? “All you need is love”?