Laureation address: Professor Robert O Keohane

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Robert Keohane mainbody

Laureation by Professor Nicholas Rengger
School of International Relations

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Robert Keohane for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

It goes without saying that it is not given to many scholars to completely reshape their chosen corners of the scholarly world. Some do, of course, succeed in contributing an influential body of work that genuinely shifts the centre of gravity of a field or part of one, but it is a rare achievement. Robert Keohane, however, has done that not once, not even twice, but four times. The 1977 publication of his book Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, co-authored with his friend and colleague Joseph Nye, remade the study of international relations – or as Keohane prefers to call it, world politics – and launched a powerful and still influential approach to studying it, Neo-liberal institutionalism. In 1984 his book After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, powerfully refashioned the then still relatively young and emergent field of international political economy, and won him the Grawemeyer award for ideas improving world order in 1989. His 1986 edited collection Neorealism and its Critics, largely shaped the debates in American international relations theory in the 1980s and early- to mid-1990s around the contrasting poles of his own Neo-liberal institutionalist agenda and that of Kenneth Waltz’s structural, or Neo, realist agenda. Neorealism, the term of art that has stuck ever since, was a term Keohane coined. And his 1994 volume, Designing Social Inquiry, co-authored with Gary King and Sydney Verba, became something approaching the Bible for US-based graduate students in the social sciences in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and hugely influenced methodological debates in political science and beyond, and continues to do so.

One would have thought that such a remarkable list of influential work would be more than enough reason to celebrate the author but to this one needs to add, in Robert Keohane’s case, several other things as well: a stunning total of 25 years on the editorial board of the journal International Organization, regularly cited as the leading journal of international relations in the world, including six years as its editor between 1974 and 1980; the presidency of both the International Studies Association in 1988-1989 and the American Political Science Association in 1999-2000, and in addition, of course, countless scholarly papers and chapters, including two collections of his own essays and 13 edited or co-edited volumes.

And this is just Robert Keohane’s published work and formal and institutional roles. But anyone who knows him knows that he is also a hugely gifted teacher and mentor, with a passion for enthusing students at all levels about the puzzles of human behaviour and interaction. The list of his former graduate students reads like a who’s who of contemporary American international relations scholarship, and many of them now themselves hold important chairs at prestigious universities in the United States and around the world. An extremely impressive group of them put together a festschrift in his honour in 2009, honouring both his own scholarship – the title of the book Power, Interdependence and Nonstate Actors in World Politics, could hardly be bettered as a summary of the concerns that have occupied him throughout his career – but also his gifts and contributions as a teacher and mentor.

That passion for the puzzles of human interaction has been apparent from his early life and academic career. Born on 3 October 1941 in Chicago, he attended Shimer College, Illinois, (where his parents taught) as an undergraduate graduating in 1961 at the age of 19. He followed that with an MA and then a PhD at Harvard from which he graduated in 1966, being awarded the Sumner prize for the best dissertation in the Government Department for that year. His first job, an instructorship then assistant and associate professorship at Swarthmore College, brought an unexpected bonus: he met his wife, political theorist Nannerl Keohane, whom this university also honours today. They went on to have four, now adult, children. Swarthmore was followed by Stanford, and then in turn by full chairs at Stanford, Brandeis, Harvard and Duke before he took up his current position at Princeton. His work has always been driven by changes in the world and the puzzles, or anomalies, that they generate: as he put it in his 2009 essay, ‘Interesting work begins not just with a problem – how democracy works in the United States, for instance – but with a puzzle. Puzzles are anomalies: what we observe does not fit with our preconceptions based on established theory.’ And he invokes the great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, when he says that ‘science proceeds on a sea of anomalies,’ which, Keohane argues, ‘certainly applies to political science.’

It is perhaps that fascination with puzzles and anomalies which has helped make his work so creative and influential, and which has now been extensively recognised. Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Science, as well as a corresponding fellowship of the British Academy, should be added to the honours bestowed on him by his colleagues in political science. In 2014, the APSA (American Political Science Association) gave him their triennial James Madison award and this followed hard on the heels of the Susan Strange award from the ISA (International Studies Association) in 2012. The Johan Skytte foundation at Uppsala University awarded him the Skytte prize for 2005, awarded annually to ‘the scholar who in the view of the Foundation has made the most valuable contribution to political science’. The list could go on and on.

But anyone who thinks that Robert Keohane believes in resting on one’s laurels, even when they are as distinguished as his are, and notwithstanding the extensive garlanding they have already received, would be hugely mistaken. His passion for puzzles and anomalies remains undimmed and his work over the last decade has displayed an increased interest in ideas and in the normative possibilities of those ideas. He has, as he put it in a recent interview, come back to his first scholarly love, political theory, and has begun to combine his interests in multi-lateral institutions, interests that emerged from that earlier research agenda, with a concern for the normative questions that can arise in such contexts. Important articles in the American Political Science Review in 2005, co-authored with Ruth Grant, and in International Organization in 2009, co-authored with Stephen Macedo and Andrew Moravcik, confirmed this new trajectory as have a series of powerful and ongoing articles, some published in the journal Ethics and International Affairs, coauthored with the philosopher Allen Buchanan. After all, it is probably about time to remake yet another area of the contemporary study of world politics.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to political science and international studies, over nearly 50 years, and in the confident expectation of many more still to come, I invite you to confer on Professor Robert Keohane, the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Category Awards

Related topics

Share this story