I have asked Robert Keohane, professor of International Affairs at Princeton University and one of the world's foremost scholars of international relations, what is the message he likes to convey to the students when he lectures around the country.
"That the study of international relations continues to be fascinating since it is so multi-faceted as well as crucially important to our lives," he said.
The themes Prof. Keohane choose for his lectures are illustrative: The role of great powers in exercising leadership in world politics, classic issues involving maintaining state autonomy versus achieving physical security while the context continues to change by what political scientists call, "organizational ecology" and "institutional density."
His talks addresses the challenges of maintaining a liberal world order in face of increasing globalization and changing notions of sovereignty.
His path-breaking book, "After Hegemony," made Keohane a leading theorist of neo-liberal institutionalism in international relations. In contrast with such well known political theorists, as Robert Kagan and Robert Lieber, who advocate American dominance in the interest of maintaining liberal order in the world, fostering democracy, and avoiding of major wars, Keohane points to the beneficial role multilateral institutions play.
In a Foreign Affairs magazine essay, Keohane writes: "Many well informed commentators view the multilateral institutions that have emerged from all this work as providing important support for contemporary world order. They point to the role of UN peacekeeping operations in fostering security, the World Bank in promoting development, the International Monetary Fund in enhancing financial stability, the World Trade Organization in fostering commerce and NATO and the European Union is helping achieve unprecedented peace and unity across an entire continent."
In fact, he writes, even Kagan acknowledges that the United States has played an essential role in creating the international system of the last 60 years, one in which large-scale warfare has been relatively rare, the global economy has grown at unprecedented rates, and the number of democracies has quadrupled. Thus, in contrast with other hegemonic powers, the United States is utilizing "multilateral institutions to promote cooperation, which is in turn necessary to solve global problems ranging from war to climate change."
Although, Keohane is widely identified as a proponent of neo-liberal institutionalism, he is apparently not a bleeding-heart liberal. "In my work, I have not emphasized global democratization about which I have been somewhat skeptical as much as how economic interdependence can create demands for cooperation and multilateral institutions can facilitate it, whether the states involved are democratic or not. In my view, this is still the case. We still see attempts to regulate new areas of activity, from climate change to armament, and when new challenges arise- such as the AIDS epidemic multilateral institutions, already established and new ones play important roles,." he said in an interview with the Gazette.
Indicative of the impact Keohane's work has in the field of foreign relations is William & Mary's "AidData" project. It started out as a student-faculty research project that sought to explain the impact of foreign aid on the natural environment in developing countries. The project, become the AidData Center for Development Policy that has von a $25 million award, the largest in W&M's history.
"Keohone wrote the seminal book on the topic, 'Institutions for Environmental Aid,'" and our first book, 'Greening Aid,' was a response and provided empirical tests of many hypotheses generated by his work. This is not atypical. Whether you are studying international organizations, trade, human rights, security institutions, or international environmental politics, you often find yourself building on the work of Bob Keohane," said Michael Tierney, Hylton professor of government and co-director of the college's Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations.
Keohane's lectures often touch on some of those subjects. But he consistently avoids making predictions. In one of his essays, he wrote: "Given the mix of the known and the unknown, the safest conclusion for those interested in the next era of world politics is probably the physicist Niels Bohr's injunction not to make predictions, especially about the future."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.