Book Review: Robert Keohane: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow in America, By Adagbo Onoja

Robert Keohane cannot be a name that rings a bell in Nigeria. In many quarters in the country, the question would certainly be Robert who? Many Nigerian political scientists, particularly the generation that read and feasted on Claude Ake’s Social Science as Imperialism would most likely not stop what they are doing because Keohane is coming to town. It was only in the absence of any immediate commitments in addition to the powerful notification system of the university’s Global Governance Institute which hosted him that I did so myself recently at the University College London.

Yet, Keohane is one of the most important voices the foreign policy elite of a hopeful great power like Nigeria need take note of as far as the unravelling of global power is concerned. How else does one refer to someone whose idea/book is the thrust of much of contemporary multilateralism and which no ministries of foreign affairs in the world today is doing without, one way or the other, knowingly or unknowingly? His new intervention called Contested Multilateralism which we engage briefly below might as well exert even more influence on the shape of the multilateralism in the making.

Thinking about international institutions is the issue that shot him into global limelight when he observed and posed the all time question about the survival of that order should the United State enter into the kind of turbulence its global power status is experiencing now for the first time since 1945. Since then, the US has positioned itself as the global Inspector-General of Police, exercising power that no other country has ever exercised anytime before in human history. The US has thus been the all time hegemon. From the early 1970s, Keohane began to see a puzzle in the claim that it is the existence and dynamism of a hegemon that keeps the international order stable. He observed the world and noticed that the hegemonic power as a bulwark of international security could be problematic: if that is true, what happens should the hegemon slip, slump or tumble?

From Robert Lieber’s 2011 paper, “Staying Power and American Future: Problems of Primacy, Policy and Grand Strategy”, one could put what stung Keohane into raising the poser to include the debates in the 1970s about whether or not the US was experiencing a decline, the first and the second oil shocks, the Iranian Revolution, the subsequent hostage crisis and several indicators of economic crisis. Of course, the spectre of Japan as a rising world power was part of it even as that spectre was only hanging then, not yet haunting anyone.

For seven years thereafter, he worked on the puzzle. And he came up with an answer in international institutions as substitute for hegemony. That is the institutionalist paradigm. It does not disagree that international politics lacks a central authority and it is, therefore, anarchic but it says that does not then mean that states are not co-operating or cannot co-operate. His articulation of how that co-operation is facilitated by international institutions is what one reads about in the book titled After Hegemony: Discord and Collaboration in the World Economy a book which a radical scholar like Craig Murphy has called “a truly paradigmatic work”. It becomes a timeless piece of intellectualism by the day, especially if it is true that it was the text substantial number of scholars and practitioners went to read again the day after the UN declined authorising US invasion of Iraq. That must have been the clearest demonstration of his most important academic argument: a situation whereby institutionalism trumps hegemony. Of course, the hegemon (the US) went ahead to invade Iraq but it is interesting that the hegemon has never been itself after that.

In that sense, Keohane could be invested with being the man who saw tomorrow about American power and world politics. That is, that someday, this hegemon could be so challenged as for the international order to be at risk if it either had to wait for the hegemon to recover or a successor hegemon to stabilise. At the time he started worrying about such, others like John Ikenberry, for instance, had not even thought of writing his 2002 book, America Unrivalled: The Future of the Balance of Power in which he was still ‘celebrating’ how enormous US power is, ‘oblivious’ of an America in decline. The same with Samuel Huntington, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan and William Kristol and so on who wrote similar works celebratory of American power in the post Cold War.

In Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation, one finds the classic realist’s reply to Keohane where Huntington was basically saying: what are international institutions without the American State? But events since the invasion of Iraq have humbled realism as a theory of world politics. So, there goes the point about Keohane and voice, although that does not make pointless the counter argument that the agenda of the book was a discursive positioning of international institutions as a way of pre-empting the successor to US hegemony from being discussed in terms of another hegemonic state(s) but in terms of institutions.

The debate about the core motivation for the argument of the book will continue no end because new interpretations will ever keep coming out. For now, the more intriguing thing is how a scholar like John Agnew would describe Keohane as a distinctive theorist. Given his own very critical scholarly stance, Agnew’s comments on Keohane must suggest that even though a foremost scholar of order and stability, Keohane is a scholar’s scholar. And hence the curiosity about what Keohane is up to this time.After Hegemony - Keohane R O

His May 2015 engagement at the University College London was not about After Hegemony but about what he calls “Contested Multilateralism”. What might this mean at the level of journalism? The briefest possible unpacking of this might be to simply take the Asia Investment Infrastructure Bank, (AIIB) which China is floating or which China has just floated because it is already a done deal. The bank which now has membership of major powers in Europe, not to talk of the big actors in Asia, has been seen as a counter to the World Bank. Since 1945, the World Bank along with her sister international institutions under the UN system constitute the multilateral system. For Keohane, the AIIB is a classic case study in “Contested Multilateralism”. In other words, China which is behind the AIIB is not opting out of the multilateral order but contesting the order within the dynamics of the status quo.

For this reason, Keohane would say that Contested Multilateralism is a strategy of change but not change in a progressive sense. His argument is that it is not the generic concept of multilateralism that is contested but the practices or specific regimes within. He sees it as a strategy from established or potentially powerful actors, a strategy for coalition which legitimates a set of practice which is not so in the subsisting multilateral practice. Those were what he said when he was asked if what he is talking about was not better called Counter Multilateralism. Keohane does not think it can be called so because it doesn’t mean that sort of change.

It is worth listening to Keohane on a concept he came up with although how the concept is read and understood by different actors will not depend on Keohane’s sense of it alone. In the last instance, each different actor would still understand it in its own way and act on the basis of such interpretation. As the way it is read determines the actions it leads different actors into, it is thus the reading that is more important than what the author might have meant or been motivated by originally. That is the point about drawing attention to it or why it is the subject of this piece because all such new arguments, ideas and doctrines should be popularised and made an issue for strategic reading with particular reference to power and global justice. The question could be asked whether, in Contested Multilateralism, we are witnessing a conceptual politics of defanging the rising powers in Asia, Latin America and probably Africa, conditioning them towards being status quo powers rather than antagonists of the liberal world order from which they have suffered exclusion or is Contested Multilateralism another paradigmatic shot from the perceptive scholar’s theoretical armoury.

In the March 2014 paper Keohane has co-authored on this along with Julia Morse, another colleague of his at Princeton University in the US, Contested Multilateralism is still a work in progress. It is not yet such a straightforward, easy to explain argument by many students of the idea as against liberal institutionalism itself. If we take the arena of global life today where there are unsettled questions of international regime such as the internet, global climate change, narcotics and so on, then, for all we care, Keohane might have brought to attention the most dominant conflict form in the on-going renegotiation of global power even as he says that Contested Multilateralism is not an entirely new feature of global politics. There is an indigestible multiplicity of principles and practices reflecting the diffusion of power in each of these arena: nation-states, international institutions, international individuals, (Bill Gates, Bono), international NGOs.

It is not surprising that no less than ten questions were fired at Keohane that midday on the contested concept he has brought up, all of which he responded to before Dr. Tom Pegram, the stimulating moderator atop the emergent intellectual melting ground called the Global Governance Institute at the University College London brought the seminar to a close. But the formal closing was only the beginning of the informal version by a handful of students who still had one thing or another to clarify from Keohane.

Professor Keohane proceeds with the practiced ease of the veteran. He still teaches actively. He had Nigerian students before and he looks forward to more. As the only Nigerian in sight, I interpreted that to mean that he was talking to me. It is an ‘invitation’ I would have loved to explore, the US being the largest number of political scientists in the world. But that is if I were sure I would not be quickly and formally declared a mad man if I returned to Nigeria from the UK only to announce that I was off to the US for any other academic engagement. Having just had time to devote to academics from working life all along, that shouldn’t be anything strange at all but in life, perception trumps everything else. Younger Nigerians who have the resources and would want to be groomed as liberal institutionalists rather than critical theorists in an Ivy League (Princeton University) might wish to explore Keohane’s ‘invitation’. I found his emphasis on honesty and integrity in his book, After Hegemony rather interesting. From the two hours or so we spent at the occasion, the way he spoke and his reaction to questions, it seems safe to say that arrogance is strange to Keohane, in spite of his stature. He is not one of those. We ended up taking pictures.


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