I have never shared realism's pessimism towards international politics in general and international cooperation in particular. For me, cooperation among states was logical and practical. It was logical, because in the long run cooperative states were better off than non-cooperative ones; it was practical, because most international problems -such as nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, setting up an international monetary system, and alleviating international poverty- required collective solutions. What makes Robert Keohane's After Hegemony important in my eyes is its logical and empirical support to the possibility and existence of cooperation among states.
The aftermath of WWII witnessed a mushrooming of international organizations/institutions to facilitate international cooperation in political as well as economic issues. The dominant realist theory of international relations did not have a well-defined theory of international organizations. But a sub-theory of realism -hegemonic stability theory- argued that the unchallenged hegemony of the United States was the driving force behind this international institutionalization and the relative peace it espoused (Gilpin 1981). All these institutions were established under the hegemony of the US and therefore their influence on world politics was dependent on the hegemonic status of the US. Thus, when in 1970's and 1980's the hegemony of the US declined with the recuperation of the Japanese and the West European economies, hegemonic stability theory expected a reversal in the impact of international institutions on world politics.
Keohane's central aim in After Hegemony is to challenge these pessimist realist evaluations of the decline in US hegemony. Keohane rejects realism's pessimist evaluations on two grounds. First, he argues that international cooperation is possible among nations and does not require a hegemon in the first place. Second, he argues that even though the national interests of states have a role in the establishment of international institutions, these institutions take a life of their own once they start rolling.
Keohane first challenges the neorealist link between states' egoism and the rarity of cooperation among them. He states, "Realist assumptions about world politics are consistent with the formation of institutionalized arrangements, containing rules and principles, which promote cooperation," (67). He maintains that egoistic governments "can rationally seek to form international regimes on the basis of shared interest," which actually reflects "rational egoism," (107). From his perspective, only a "myopic self-interest" understanding prevents states from cooperating when it is actually in their interest if the issue is evaluated with other issues (99).
Keohane then develops a theory of international institutions in which he argues that international institutions, or more broadly international regimes, influence the way and the extent to which states cooperate with each other. He states that by providing principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures, regimes "prescribe certain actions and proscribe others," (59). However, international regimes are valuable to governments not because they enforce binding rules on others, "but because they render it possible for governments to enter into mutually beneficial agreements with one another," (13). Regimes do that through multiple channels. First, they create an environment whereby states obtain information about other states' intentions and preferences. Second, international regimes can be regarded as "quasi agreements", which, although lacking a legally binding force, "help to organize relationships in mutually beneficial way," (89). Once a regime is established, states' concern about `retaliation' and `reputation' makes them "forward looking" and generally urges them to cooperate. And third, Keohane argues that international regimes decrease "transaction costs" for parties involved, thereby increasing incentives to cooperate (90).
Keohane was heavily influence by Ernst Haas who challenged the statist view in international politics and argued that the actors in international relations are all entities capable of putting forth demands effectively; "who or what these entities may be cannot be answered a priori," (1964, 84). Thus, Keohane is opposed to the realists' argument on the insignificance of international institutions and argues that regimes can affect the interests and policies of states by influencing their "expectations and values," (63). Although he accepts that international regimes are not "beyond the nation-state," he maintains that they are not pure "dependent variables" as argued by neorealists, but rather "intervening variables" with semi-independent effects on states' behavior (63-4). Therefore, international regimes are easier to maintain than to create (50).
I do not have significant problems with the institutionalist theory Keohane develops in After Hegemony. Yet I must confess that institutional theory is more a theory of international cooperation than a theory of international relations. By borrowing from both realism and liberalism, Keohane succeeded in developing a concrete and persuasive theory of cooperation among states. Also, like some others (Moravscik 1997, Mearsheimer 1995, Gilpin 2001) I do not think that Keohane's institutional theory can be regarded as a "neoliberal" argument. Keohane shares realism's assumptions of anarchy, rationality, and egoism but maintains a more optimistic view on the cooperation among states. Hence, as he himself states elsewhere, his position is not "against" structural realism, but "beyond" structural realism (1984, 191). Personally, I would rather consider him an "optimistic realist" than a "neoliberal institutionalist". Yet this does not undermine the strength of his arguments.
Finally, if empirical evidence is a support to the accuracy of theories, the history of the European Union since the end of the Cold War gives extensive support to Keohane's argument on international institutions. Some realist (Mearsheimer 1990) expected a reversal in the integration of European countries after the end of the Cold War. By contrast, Keohane argued that because common interests are likely to persists and the institutions of the European Community are well-entrenched, we should expect further integration in Europe (1993, 291). The current deepening as well as expansion of European integration after the Cold War confirms Keohane's prediction and gives further support to Keohane's institutional arguments.