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After Hegemony
By Robert O. Keohane**

Keohane presenta en el prefacio de su libro "After Hegemony" algunos argumentos y conjeturas sobre porqué un libro escrito en 1984, antes de la caída de la Unión Soviética, aún mantiene vigente gran parte de sus principales puntos argumentativos. Keohane sostiene que puede existir cooperación sin hegemonía y que esa cooperación no necesariamente requiere de participación estadounidense para ser exitosa, a luz de los sucesos ocurridos en los años 90, los atentados del 11/S y la consecuente respuesta de Estados Unidos en Irak y Afganistán.

It is a source of great satisfaction to any author that his book is still read and cited after 20 years.  To an author of a book about contemporary world politics, in this era of rapid change, such longevity is also a source of amazement.  Since the publication of After Hegemony, the Soviet Union has collapsed. The United States has maintained its economic advantage over other industrialized democracies and has risen to a position of unparalleled military dominance.   Terrorism has replaced fear of interstate nuclear war as the principal threat to the security of the American people.

“After hegemony,” indeed!  The title of my book seems quaintly out of touch with contemporary reality. Relationships among the major capitalist countries had been remarkably cooperative between 1945 and 1984, a fact attributed by many theorists (e.g. Gilpin 1975, Krasner 1976) to American hegemony. Yet hegemony in the world political economy seemed to be in decline: in fact, the U.S. share of world GDP had fallen quite markedly in the previous 20 years (AH, table 9.1, p. 197). I did not expect a precipitous decline in the future, but I thought that we were entering a post-hegemonic era.  The conjunction of what I called hegemonic cooperation and the apparent decline of hegemony framed the key issue for my book: “How can cooperation take place in world politics in the absence of hegemony?” This question seemed to have urgent policy relevance, since many voices were claiming that the continuing decline of American hegemony signalled a return to much greater conflict, and the collapse of international institutions that had promoted cooperation.

This framing of my argument soon proved too limited.  My friend and co-author Joseph S. Nye told me when he saw drafts of After Hegemony that it was misleading to bracket the analysis of military-security relationships.  But I found that I needed to limit the scope of the argument in order to develop and seek to evaluate (if not really test) a coherent line of thought.  So I settled for a paragraph explaining that I would set security issues aside.  Nye, who continued to connect economic and security issues in his work, argued as early as 1990 that the United States was more powerful than the conventional wisdom suggested – that it was “bound to lead” (Nye 1990).  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the technological revolution in warfare combined to render his analysis even more correct, perhaps, than he had anticipated. 

Furthermore, although growth has been much faster in China, India and other rapidly developing countries since 1984 than in the United States, both of America’s then-rivals, Europe and Japan, have grown more slowly (World Bank, 2004). By the turn of the millennium, the United States had achieved a preponderance of military capabilities that is unrivaled in modern history, and had extended its economic advantage over other advanced industrialized states (Wohlforth 2002:  105). As a result, we have not really seen a test of whether institutions will last “after hegemony.”  Indeed, the contemporary issue is whether these institutions can survive the extreme degree of unipolarity that has emerged, particularly after 9/11 prompted radical changes in American foreign policy. 

The Theoretical Argument

So why is After Hegemony not simply gathering dust on library shelves, ignored when not being ridiculed for its errors? In my view, the reason is that the central theoretical argument of the book is largely unaffected by its anachronistic framing.  Part II of the book conceptualizes cooperation not as harmony but as an intensely political process of mutual adjustment in a situation of actual and potential discord. I agree with Kenneth N. Waltz that “in anarchy there is no automatic harmony” (Waltz 1959: 182), and go on to ask how cooperation is possible under these conditions.

My answer builds deliberately and explicitly both on realism, particularly Waltz’s neorealism, and rational choice theory. States do not typically cooperate out of altruism or empathy with the plight of others, nor for the sake of pursuing what they conceive as “international interests.” They seek wealth and security for their own people, and search for power as a means to these ends. The units of action (states) and the motivations ascribed to states in After Hegemony would be familiar to a reader of Hans J. Morgenthau (1948) or Arnold Wolfers (1962). As I say in chapter 1, “we need to go beyond Realism, not discard it”.

On this realist foundation, however, I build an institutionalist edifice. The key to my argument is the “functional theory of international regimes,” which appears in chapter 6 and was foreshadowed two years earlier in my article, “The demand for international regimes” (Keohane 1982/83). According to my argument, states build international regimes in order to promote mutually beneficial cooperation. The international trade regime of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is an institution to which I often refer; indeed, it could be argued that my theory generalizes the experience of the GATT. International regimes – clusters of principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures – reduce transaction costs for states, alleviate problems of asymmetrical information, and limit the degree of uncertainty that members of the regime face in evaluating each others’ policies. Like other political institutions, they are both explainable in terms of self-interest and exert an impact on state policies by changing the costs and benefits of various alternatives. They do not override self-interest but rather affect calculations of self-interest.

A crucial argument, which foreshadows later arguments in game-theoretic treatments of world politics, is that information is a variable. It is not just that world politics is uncertain; institutionalization can provide information, increase credibility and generate focal points, thus reducing uncertainty

In my judgment, the central arguments of After Hegemony have held up well.  Indeed, some of my severest critics seem to have accepted substantial elements of it. Joseph Grieco declares at the end of Cooperation among Nations (1990) that realist theory holds that “international institutions do matter for states as they attempt to cooperate”. Lloyd Gruber (2000) writes that “rather than seeking to destroy neoliberalism’s theoretical edifice, realists are now themselves actively building on it”.

The history of the 1990s was supportive of the theory of cooperation and institutions developed in After Hegemony. Realists imagined that the end of the Cold War would lead to the decline or collapse of international institutions, which they saw as reflections of superpower conflict rather than as devices by which states could achieve mutually beneficial cooperation in functionally defined issue-areas (Mearsheimer 1990, 1994-95). But during the 1990s the European Union expanded and strengthened its institutions, NATO expanded both its membership and its range of activities, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) broadened its tasks and was given substantial new powers to settle disputes. Some observers worried that international institutions were co-opted by a revived version of American hegemony. But in general, it appeared to many of us that cooperation could be sustained by the prospect of mutual benefit, apart from superpower rivalry.

Since 9/11, we have moved into a new era, characterized by vigorous exercise of America’s unprecedented political and military power. The military dominance of the United States encouraged the Bush Administration to persuade itself that its need for allies had radically diminished. President Bush decided to invade Iraq, in part with the ambitious objective of instituting democratic governance in the Middle East. In view of the radical shifts in American policy, it is hardly surprising that America’s allies in Europe and Asia have sought to constrain American actions. Conflicts of interest between the United States and its allies have increased.

It is not at all clear that such conflicts of interest are inherent in the structure of contemporary world politics. Certainly in 1984 I did not anticipate sharp increases in geopolitical conflicts of interest to appear between the United States and other major capitalist countries. On the contrary, I expected an increasing demand for cooperation.  For over a decade and a half, that forecast seemed to be correct. My view is that the turn taken by the United States after September 11, 2001, was prompted not solely by the exigencies of a struggle against terrorism, but by the ideological orientations of the people in power in the United States Government. Had the election of 2000 turned out differently, it is very difficult to imagine that the United States would have attacked Iraq without either authorization from the United Nations or support from its traditional European allies.

Nothing in After Hegemony would have enabled one to anticipate the degree of conflict that now exists, in the spring of 2004, between the United States and its European allies. But the book’s argument would lead one to expect that the United States could not successfully attain its political objectives through military power, while scorning the United Nations. The facts that American unilateralism failed in Iraq, and that even the antagonistic Bush Adminstration had to turn to the UN, suggest not the irrelevance of international institutions but their continued significance.

The argument of After Hegemony, that cooperation can take place without hegemony, also implies that international cooperation does not necessarily require American participation. The continuing efforts by the European Union to secure ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and the creation of the International Criminal Court without United States membership, indicate that new global institutions can exist without the United States.  The possibility of global cooperation without the United States comes at a time of increasing differences in values between Europe (and to some extent other industrialized democracies) and the United States.  One thinks of issues such as state regulation of the economy, provision of welfare benefits, the death penalty, and respect for the international law.  Hence the substance of the rules created will be different in new institutions created without the United States, than it would be with the US fully engaged. 

Major Shortcomings

Only a very rigid thinker or a fool would fail to change his views on some important points over the course of twenty years. One of the joys, furthermore, of writing a work that attracts attention is that younger scholars find contradictions or anomalies, or otherwise identify weaknesses in the argument. Let me discuss some of the weaknesses that I think have been identified.

The most obvious weakness was deliberate: the theoretical discussion of After Hegemony treats states as units, without taking into account variations in domestic politics or in the ideas prevailing within them. The historical accounts of American hegemonic policy in chapters 8 and 9 are replete with references to the importance of domestic politics; but domestic politics plays no role in my theory. The reason for the inconsistency was simple: I did not know how to incorporate a sophisticated domestic politics theory into my analysis in a cogent and parsimonious way. As a result, After Hegemony lacks a theory of how domestic politics and international institutions connect. A number of efforts have been made to rectify this omission. Since a number of scholars have made important contributions to this line of work, I hesitate to mention names; but it should be noted that Helen Milner’s efforts to link domestic and international politics have been particularly noteworthy and influential (Milner 1997, 1998).

My inability to incorporate domestic politics into my argument helps us to understand why After Hegemony provides few clues to the policy of the Bush Administration. American leaders acted on the basis of insufficiently scrutinized misinformation, and according to prejudices against the very international institutions whose functions I elucidate. How could we expect, then, that the United States would behave as anticipated by a model that assumes a broad measure of rationality and considerable sophistication about how world politics works?

After Hegemony has probably been most severely criticized for de-emphasizing the issue of the distribution of gains from institutionalized cooperation. After Hegemony adopts what Alexander Wendt (1999) later referred to as a Lockean culture of anarchy, in which actors are neither enemies or friends, but rivals. They all seek their own advantage, without particular animosity, or empathy, toward others. In this context, my argumentstresses what could be called the “efficiency gains” from cooperation. I recognized that distributional issues are important in world politics, but I did not emphasize these issues and my theory did not account for how the benefits of agreements would be distributed (Krasner 1991).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a lively debate occurred about distributional issues related to international cooperation (Grieco 1988, Keohane 1993). In my view that debate concluded with an acknowledgement that distributional issues deserve more emphasis than I gave them, but that they can be understood within a standard utility and bargaining framework (Powell 1993: 228; Powell 1999: 76). Under some conditions distributional issues can have important effects on cooperation, although they do not render such cooperation impossible in the real world.

The distributional issues are undoubtedly more complex than the argument in After Hegemony indicates. I emphasized correctly that agreements in world politics have to be self-enforcing. Therefore, actors will comply with such agreements only if they benefit as much from the agreement as from the reversion point – what they could achieve without the agreement. What I did not sufficiently appreciate are the implications of the fact that states or coalitions of states may be able, through international agreement, to change the status quo, and therefore reduce the value of the reversion point for other states. The latter states may then face an unpleasant choice: between accepting an agreement that is worse than the previous status quo, on the one hand, and remaining independent of commitments under conditions that are also worse than the previous status quo, on the other (Gruber 2000).

This criticism has implications for our ethical evaluations of international regimes: we should be even more skeptical than I was in 1984. I warned that international regimes would not necessarily increase welfare, since states could be excluded and regimes could be directed against them.  I criticized the IMF, GATT and other international institutions quite specifically for reflecting the ideologies and interests of powerful, wealthy states, and therefore falling far short of what would be demanded by cosmopolitan ethical standards (256). However, I retained the faith that these institutions would not worsen the situation of poor countries relative to a situation in which no such institutions existed. But the WTO negotiations on intellectual property rights (TRIPs) provide a specific illustration of the problem that Gruber highlighted. The Single Undertaking required states to agree to all provisions of the Uruguay Round if they wished to benefit from any of them.  Such provisions can worsen the situation of poor countries, particularly if negotiations are complex and they are poorly staffed relative to their richer bargaining partners (Steinberg 2002).

Unresolved Questions and Directions for Research

After Hegemony claims that international institutions have significant impacts on important outcomes in world politics. The fundamental theoretical problem here, which is not recognized in the book, is that of endogeneity.  Institutions are explained, in my theory, by power and interest – one could add the ideas, or worldviews, of participants and the nature of domestic political regimes. That is, they are endogenous to these other factors.  What, then, happens to the impact of institutions? “Insofar as the theory of institutional origins and functions is accepted, the independent explanatory power of institutions seems to disappear” (Keohane and Martin 2003:98). 

However, it turns out that for three reasons it does not really disappear. The existence of multiple equilibria in game-theoretic outcomes means that there is no unique institutional outcome dictated by power and interests, whether combined with ideational and domestic political factors or not. Hence the characteristics of institutions can affect the nature of the equilibria that result – even though institutions do not specify a unique equilibrium any more than do power and interest.  Secondly, organizations persist over time, exerting effects even after the conditions of their formation have changed. Finally, agency theory shows how agents (such as international organizations) can exert effects within constraints – sometimes broad ones – imposed by principals. Theoretical arguments do not suggest, therefore, imply that institutions should be epiphenomenal (Keohane and Martin 2003).     

Each of these three reasons for institutional impact suggests a deficiency in the analysis of After Hegemony and some directions for further research.

First, the existence of multiple equilibria in game theory means that After Hegemony falls far short of explaining cooperation and discord. It provides a framework for the analysis of these phenomena, but not a testable theory. Such a theory would require the specification of conditional hypotheses with clear observable implications, and strategies for measurement and empirical assessment, that would enable scholars to test the hypotheses. Social science is not yet at the point at which such a theory, about such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon as cooperation in world politics, can be devised and tested.

Even at a less ambitious level, After Hegemony does not pay enough attention to organizations and their dynamics (Barnett and Finnemore 1998). The framework of my book – useful as far as it goes but incomplete – was designed to understand how states interact to create international regimes, conceptualized as institutionalized structures of rules. The organizational characteristics of regimes are largely ignored. Hence my framework is less helpful for studying the World Bank or International Monetary Fund than for analyzing the GATT or WTO.

Third, After Hegemony lacks a theory of delegation. Ironically, my functional theory, focused on the interaction of states, may have given too much credit to the realist anarchy paradigm that it sought to criticize. I was aware in 1984 that the problem of incomplete contracts and asymmetric information was fundamental, as work, which I cited, by such scholars as Akerlof, Coase, and Williamson had argued. Yet to assure credibility and reduce uncertainty, incomplete contracts require authoritative interpretation, which in international law entails delegation – often to courts (Goldstein et al. 2001). Within complex organizations, interpretation of rules, and their effective implementation, require delegation. But delegation to agents implies potential shifts in power, and problems of control. Agency theory has recently been used, in promising ways, to explore these implications with respect to international organizations (Nielson and Tierney 2003).

Another important direction of research involves issues of compliance. In After Hegemony I relied heavily on reputation as a motivation for compliance with international commitments (105-106).  Indeed, my next research project was an attempt to demonstrate the importance of reputation for compliance. Research, however, has an interesting way of revealing the unexpected, and what I found did not match my expectations. In examining United States compliance, or lack thereof, with its international commitments, I found more noncompliance than I had expected (extending over the history of the United States between 1776 and 1989). Reputational concerns, although genuine, seemed to have less impact on policy than I had expected. Since I have not yet invented a theory that would compellingly account for the great variations in compliance than I found, much of this research has not led to publication. But it has made me wiser, and more cautious, about reputation as an incentive for compliance. Some excellent recent work on this subject (Simmons 2000, Hathaway 2002) suggests both that reputation is important in states’ calculations and that concerns about it are not a guarantee of compliance with international commitments.


When After Hegemony was written, the phrase, “globalization,” was not part of our lexicon. The Internet was little more than a gleam in the eye of some scientists affiliated with the Defense Department.  The number of transnational non-governmental networks was probably at least an order of magnitude less than it is today. Scholars had not yet identified “issue-advocacy networks” (Keck and Sikkink 1998) or “global civil society” (Keene 2003) as important subjects for analysis. Hence After Hegemony appears too state-centric for the 21st century.  Were a new volume on “cooperation and discord in the world political economy” to be written today, it would have to integrate three forms of analysis. Like After Hegemony, it would have to investigate how states form international regimes and comply or not with their rules.  But it would also have to discuss how the decisions of states and intergovernmental organizations are affected by the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the transnational networks in which they are embedded. And it would have to link the analysis both of state and transnational action to domestic politics, making use of contemporary theory and research in comparative politics.

In an autobiographical context, one way of making this point is to say that a rewriting of After Hegemony today would need to return to some themes that Nye and I pursued in the 1970s, in Transnational Relations and World Politics (1972) and Power and Interdependence (1977). In 1984 I did not reject the arguments we had made during the previous decade. But I put some of these complexities aside in order to develop a clearer conceptualization for understanding cooperation among states. Some of my recent work – as in Power and Governance in a Partially Globalized World (2002) – can be viewed as the beginning of an attempt to understand cooperation in the context of globalization, viewed as the intensification and transformation of patterns of interdependence. But the best new scholarship on global political economy all relies heavily on sophisticated models and quantitative as well as qualitative evidence about domestic politics – areas missing from my resume.

Once published, a book is open to interpretation by all readers: the author has no privileged status in this enterprise, and his interpretation may even be partially impaired by self-interest and the tricks of memory.  Others’ reflections are at least equally valuable.  My hope is that After Hegemony not only continue to provide fuel for argument, but that it will continue to stimulate new thinking, and provide impetus for more rigorous research, during the next phase of its shelf-life. 

* I am indebted for comments on an earlier draft of this preface to Stephen D. Krasner, Lisa L. Martin, Helen V. Milner, Chuck Myers, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and Beth Simmons – exemplary colleagues and friends.

** Robert Keohane es autor de "After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy" (1984) y de "Power and Governance in a Partially Globalized World" (2002). Es co-autor de "Power and Interdependence" (2001) y de "Designing Social Inquiry" (1994). Ha servido como editor de la revista "International Organization" y fue Presidente de la Asociación de Estudios Internacionales y la Asociación Americana de Ciencia Política. Es miembro de la American Academy of Arts and Sciences y de la National Academy of Sciences. Realizó su Ph.D en Harvard y es profesor emérito en Princeton University.

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Nota: publicado en Ágora Internacional, Vol. 2, N° 4, 2007.