NEW YORK — Kenneth N. Waltz, a preeminent thinker on international relations who was known for his contrarian, debate-provoking ideas, not least his view that stability in the Middle East might be better served if Iran had a nuclear weapon, died on May 12 in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said Columbia University, where Mr. Waltz was a senior research scholar.
Leslie H. Gelb, emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, characterized Mr. Waltz as one of five ‘‘giants’’ who shaped the study of international relations as a discrete discipline, the others being Hans Morgenthau, Henry A. Kissinger, Samuel P. Huntington, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The field developed in the 1950s, when the experiences of two world wars and the beginning of the Cold War drove scholars to try to explain more precisely how nations interacted. The goal was to build a conceptual framework on which international politics could be analyzed, something earlier courses on military and diplomatic history had not offered.
‘‘Without a theory, we’re just lost,’’ said Robert Jervis, a political science professor at Columbia. ‘‘We just have all these random phenomena we can’t make any sense of.’’
One of Mr. Waltz’s propositions was that wars are not caused simply by human aggression or bad governments but by the anarchic, dog-eat-dog nature of international relations. Each nation-state, he said, will push as far as it can to advance its own self-interests.
He used as an example the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he said freed the United States to become a bully because it no longer had an opponent in its own weight class. In this new ‘‘unipolar’’ world, the United States ‘‘abuses its power, singling out poor, weak countries — that’s what we specialize in — and beating them up,’’ he said in 2011 in an oral history interview at the University of California, Berkeley.