Keohane, Robert

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Keohane, Robert 1941-


Robert Owen Keohane is an American political scientist and an expert in international relations. He is most well known for his insistence on the importance of international institutions in shaping state behavior. Keohane challenged the stress of many political scientists on unitary actors and on the conflictual tendencies of anarchy; he simultaneously shifted the focus of the discipline away from security studies and toward economic policies and relationships.

In turning to economic policy in his early work in the 1970s, Keohane saw that this arena involved the interaction of political actors within states in behaviors that cut across states. This observation challenged the unitary actor assumption, a key element of the realist school, which treats states as unitary wholes, preoccupied primarily with the problem of national security, which is seen largely in military terms. The concepts of transnational relations and complex interdependence, which Keohane developed with political scientist Joseph Nye, replaced the unitary actors with networks of firms and interest groups operating within and across borders, and offering conflicting pressure on decision makers to define national interest. Keohane argued that national governments are players in a policy arena, but their control is by no means exclusive, nor total. Regimes (a mixture of norms and institutions cutting across states) shape state behavior and policy outcomes.

Keohane and Nye pointed out the decline of force as the exclusive issue area, the importance of international regimes, and the fragmentation of authority in each state and thus in their interactions. From 1974 to 1980, Keohane served as editor of International Organization, a scholarly journal on international affairs, and transformed it from a largely descriptive and evaluative publication into a significant vehicle for social science and peerreviewed research.

In the 1980s Keohane shifted his attention away from the fragmented, national-actor arena of domestic politics toward a debate on the international system with the political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Whereas Waltz theorized that anarchy was the root of conflict, because the logic of self-help created a security dilemma (in protecting oneself, one antagonizes others), Keohane argued that cooperation could take place among units in anarchy under the right conditions. According to Keohane, international institutions could solve the problems of coordination and information that inhibit cooperation. These institutions would not be supranationalthat is, they do not impose rules from above, but arise out of voluntary participation.

Drawing on research in game theory and institutional economics, Keohane argued that institutions make it easier to share information, reduce transaction costs, facilitate bargains across issue areas, provide mechanisms for dispute resolution, and supply processes for making decisions. Institutions can increase cooperation even without coercive power. Institutions may increase iterationthat is, the number of interactions among unitsthus generating a positive cycle of cooperation. The debate between Keohanes neoliberal institutionalism and Waltzs neorealism structured the field for many years.

Three lines of inquiry challenged the centrality of the Keohane-Waltz debate. First, the domestic politics school, whose members generally were sympathetic to Keohanes critique of Waltz, complained that by moving the debate toward system argumentscooperation versus conflict by unitary states under anarchythe domestic political elements of international politics were being neglected. These writers wanted to continue the disaggregation of the unitary state, which Keohane had begun to do in the 1970s, by exploring the role of domestic politics in shaping how states defined their position in the world. A states position in the international system is open to rival interpretations. The issue of whether a state wants to cooperate turns on domestic politics, on whether there is support at home for international cooperation, and on whether the supporters are able to prevail in policy debates.

The second line of inquiry, forwarded by constructivists and sociological theorists, complained that both Keohane and Waltz neglected nonrationalist and nonmaterial aspects of the interaction of units. Keohane accepted, after all, Waltzs assumption that states were utility maximizers. What he disputed was what maximization under anarchy led to; under the right conditions, according to Keohane, it led to cooperation, not the inevitability of conflict. But neither Keohane nor Waltz paid much attention to such aspects as culture, ideas, values, the internalization of norms, the constitutive elements of identity, and the tissue of human exchanges and cultures, which structure interaction.

A third line of inquiry, advanced largely by security specialists, attacked Keohanes emphasis on institutions, on the way these operate, and on the neglect of security issues, generally and in relation to the functioning of institutions. Some specialists in this camp are realists who agree rather more with Waltz, while others disagree on agenda, the evaluation of interests, the actual prospects for cooperation, and the implications for public policy.

Keohane was born in Chicago in 1941. He earned a bachelors degree from Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois, in 1961, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1966. Keohanes distinguished teaching career began at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1965. He then taught at Stanford University in California (19731981), Brandeis University in Massachusetts (19811985), Harvard University (19851996), and Duke University in North Carolina (19962004). In 2005 Keohane became professor of international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. In 2005 Keohane was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an unusual honor for a political scientist.

SEE ALSO International Relations; Waltz, Kenneth



Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Keohane, Robert O., ed. 1986. Neorealism and Its Critics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Keohane, Robert O., and Joseph S. Nye. 1977. Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston: Little, Brown.

Keohane, Robert O., Peter J. Katzenstein, and Stephen D. Krasner, eds. 1999. Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Keohane, Robert O., Judith L. Goldstein, Miles Kahler, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. 2000. Introduction: Legalization and World Politics. International Organization 54 (3): 385399.

Keohane, Robert O., Gary King, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Peter Gourevitch