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Keohane Discusses Hobbes and Wows Students During Visit to W&M

Robert KeohaneRenowned international relations scholar Robert Keohane of Princeton University spent a day engaging students, meeting with faculty and delivering lectures during a visit to William & Mary on April 15.

Widely considered one of the world’s foremost scholars of international relations, Keohane has contributed highly influential works to the field including the books After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy and Power and Interdependence, which he co-wrote with his longtime collaborator, Joseph Nye.

Keohane was greeted enthusiastically by students who know his work well and who took advantage of the many opportunities throughout the day to meet the scholar. Keohane met with student Katie Beaver about her thesis. He went to lunch with the IR Club, and he attended a post-lecture reception with another group of IR students.

“The students were wonderfully nerdy and very excited to chat with Professor Keohane, but he was as impressed with them as they were with him,” said Mike Tierney, Hylton associate professor of government and director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations (ITPIR). “As usual, William & Mary students make a great impression on visitors.”

Keohane’s morning lecture on “American Leadership and Multilateral Institutions in a Post-Hegemonic World” was delivered to a group of 50 students, which encouraged interaction between Keohane and his undergraduate audience.

“The small room enabled many students to ask very specific questions in a more personal setting,” said attendee Rachel Fybel ’14, a government major. “This was different from other lectures that we attend, because we were actually hearing about Liberal Institutionalism from the man who wrote the book! This wasn't someone's interpretation of the theory of what Keohane thinks; it was coming straight from him.”

Keohane’s afternoon talk, “Hobbes’s Dilemma and the Liberal Quest for World Order,” drew an audience of more than 300 to the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

The lecture began with a description of 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ theory that people are forced to choose between anarchy and authoritarianism. Keohane said that Hobbes, who lived through the English Civil War, found anarchy to be absolutely appalling, but was willing to accept an authoritarian system of government as a lesser evil.

Following his lecture on Hobbes's dilemma, Keohane talks to students.Keohane went on to apply Hobbes’ dilemma to international politics, where there is no higher authority above sovereign states, proposing that the solution lies in the development of international institutions to foster cooperation among those states.

“We hope for the best, but we need to take specific institutional action to make our hopes realistic,” said Keohane.

Keohane added that relying on the liberalism of progress will not solve Hobbes’s dilemma.

“The notion that human nature is improving, that we can just relax, is implausible in light of evolutionary theory,” he said. “I would not put my faith in progress alone.”

He concluded by acknowledging that international institutions will probably never meet the levels of accountability we expect from a democratic policy domestically, explaining that they must go beyond a mere protective role to fulfill their wider potential.

During the question-and-answer session that followed his lecture, numerous students and attendees posed poignant questions to Keohane. One student asked about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its effectiveness in the realm of international institutions.

Keohane responded that the ICC has symbolic value, but so far no practical impact. He added that it illustrates both the value of ideas and the continuing relevance of political realism.

International Relations major Meghan Foley ’16 said she enjoyed his explanation of ideas she has discussed in the classroom:

“It was really interesting to hear some of the most accepted theories in international relations explained directly from the person who developed them,” Foley said. “He gave his perspective on the paradigm debate from the time period in which it was happening. It was a good reminder that liberalism and constructivism were new and groundbreaking ideas when they were first introduced and generated a whole new way of looking at the world since today they're widely recognized.”

Keohane’s visit to the College was sponsored by the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations and the W&M International Relations Club.