International Politics

, Volume 56, Issue 1, pp 17–32 | Cite as

“Anarchy is what states make of it”: true in a trivial sense; otherwise, wrong

  • Davide FiammenghiEmail author
Original Article


The claim “Anarchy is what states make of it” is true in the trivial sense that states’ identities are not carved in stone, but can change, and that international affairs are “cultural” or “social,” not natural phenomena. In this sense, the claim is trivially true; only the common 1990s misinterpretation of Waltz’s writings as a crude form of materialism could make it sound like highly original. The claim may also refer to something more specific, namely that states are embedded in shared normative belief systems. In this second sense, the claim is wrong. Wendt makes the non-controversial point that states must recognize each other as the key actors with which they interact, and in so doing they form a primitive “cultural” system, but his larger claim is that states act on the basis of their “culture” in the more specific sense of common norms that shape states’ identities. Wendt is known for the second point, but as I demonstrate he never shows that states share such common norms, only that they share a “culture” in a broad, socio-cognitive sense. Wendt’s famous claim is taken to be representative of a more widespread malaise that plagues IR theory, and the implications are discussed.


Alexander Wendt Kenneth Waltz Anarchy States 



This research was founded by the University of Bologna. I would like to thank Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli, Stefano Guzzini, Steven Lobell, and Andrea Locatelli, for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper. Filippo Andreatta, Samuel Barkin, and Marco Cesa read a much longer version of the article, part of a broader project. I thank them for their patience and supportive comments. Joseph Grieco made perceptive comments that helped me to refine the latest versions of the piece. The usual disclaimer applies.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche e SocialiUniversità di BolognaBolognaItaly

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