Great IR Thinkers: Robert O. Keohane

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In 1965, Robert Keohane completed his PhD dissertation at Harvard University on the politics of the UN General Assembly. The question he tried to answer was whether institutions matter in explaining state behavior, or whether the latter could be deduced solely from the distribution of power. Over 30 years later, Keohane is still examining this question, and the ways in which he dealt with the question over the years have put him on the list of the most important political thinkers of our time.

Keohane was born in 1941 at the University of Chicago Hospitals. When he was 10, the family moved to Mount Carroll, Illinois, where he attended public school; after the 10th grade, at the age of only 16, Keohane was an early entrant to Shimer College, a small offshoot of the College of the University of Chicago, where his parents were professors.

In 1965, he took up a teaching position at Swarthmore College. In 1969, after joining the board of editors for the journal International Organization, which has since become one of the leading journals in the field, Keohane began his remarkable research collaboration with Joseph S. Nye. He moved to California in 1973 to teach at Stanford University. In 1985, Keohane returned to Harvard, where he stayed for the next decade. In 1996, he was appointed James Duke Professor of International Relations at Duke University.

While the post-war realist synthesis was based on the assumptions that the state is the key actor in international relations and that the diplomatic-strategic relations of states are the core of actual international relations, the 1960s and 1970s brought with them a new thinking, which made both of these assumptions seem less plausible.

The wind of change was nicely caught in the title of a book, Transnational Relations and World Politics (1971), edited by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye. While this collection did not develop a theory as such, its description of the world did pose a new and interesting theoretical challenge. Conventional, realist, state-centric International Relations assumed that the significant relations between different societies are those which take place via the institutions of the state.

The model suggested by Keohane and Nye, however, relaxed this assumption. First, they stated that it could no longer be assumed that interstate relations are always the most important; in the modern world, the decisions and actions of non-state actors can affect our lives as much as, if not more than, the decisions and actions of states (Al Qaeda and 9/11 being just one of many examples). Second, they insisted that it could no longer be presumed that states have the power to regulate these actors effectively.

Keohane and Nye’s transnational relations collection espoused no new theory of IR; their next book, Power and Interdependence (1977/2000), however, went some way towards meeting this need. In this classic work the two thinkers proposed complex interdependence as a new account of international relations to run alongside realism, and set out the key differences between the two approaches.

First, complex interdependence assumed that there were multiple channels of access between societies, including different branches of the state apparatus as well as non-state actors. Second, complex interdependence presumed that for most international relationships force would be of low salience, as opposed to the central role that force is given in realist accounts of the world. Finally, under complex interdependence there exists no hierarchy of issues; any ‘issue-area’ might be at the top of the international agenda at any particular time, whereas realism assumes that security is the most important isue between states at all times.

Finally, and in contrast to the ever broadening inductive mode of Transnational Relations and Power and Interdependence,Keohane’s most famous book After Hegemony (1984) went on to develop rigorous theoretical answers to questions concerning the motives behind cooperation among the nations of this world. Can cooperation persist without the dominance of a single power? To answer this pressing question, Robert Keohane analyzed the institutions, or “international regimes,” through which cooperation took place in the world. Refuting the idea that the decline of hegemony makes cooperation impossible, he viewed international regimes not as weak substitutes for world government but as devices for facilitating decentralized cooperation among egoistic actors.

After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy is still considered the seminal work on international regimes and is considered to be the indicator of the neoliberal institutionalist school of IR. The book revolutionalized the field and opened a fierce debate on cooperation that lasts until now.

Robert Keohane’s oeuvre includes:


* After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton University Press, 1984)
* Neorealism and Its Critics (Columbia University Press, 1986)
* International Institutions and State Power: Essays in International Relations Theory (Westview, 1989)
* Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (Little, Brown, 1977); with Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
* Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton, 1994); with Gary King and Sidney Verba
* Power and Interdependence in a Partially Globalized World (Routledge, New York, 2002)
* The Regime Complex for Climate Change with David G. Victor (2010)


* Watch the Conversations With History 2004 interview with Keohane here

* Watch Professor Colin Hay’s 2008 interview with Professor Robert Keohane here

* Watch a 2010 interview with Professor Robert Keohane at the Graduate Institute in Geneva here


* Read Keohane’s article The Globalization of Informal Violence (2002) here

* Read Keohane & Nye’s article The Club Model of Multilateral Cooperation and the World Trade Organization here (pdf)

* Read Keohane’s 2006 article The Contingent Legitimacy of Multilateralism here

* Read Keohane’s 2007 Fellows Ceremonies Speech at APSA here

* Also, check out Robert Keohane’s thoughts on Institutions and the Need for Innovation in the Field in Theory-Talks, an interactive forum for discussion of debates in International Relations, here

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