Did Robert Keohane just become a neo-Gramscian and no-one noticed?

Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire Destruction (1836)

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (‘The Liberal Order is Rigged’), Jeff Colgan and Robert Keohane have highlighted some shortcomings of the liberal international order. They point out that not everybody has been a winner from economic globalization, and they are worried about the emergence of ‘populism’ and the threat that this may pose to institutions such as the United Nations, European Union, World Trade Organization, and NATO.

Episodes of introspection and self-doubt amongst many scholars and policy makers have been common since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. What is interesting about this one in particular is that it comes from one of the foremost scholars in the field of International Relations, who is in large part the originator of the liberal institutionalist approach to international politics.

Liberal institutionalism takes the realist world of security-striving sovereign states interacting in an anarchic environment as its starting point. But it emphasizes that states can still cooperate under these conditions, largely by establishing international institutions that allow states to solve collective action problems by exchanging information and reducing transaction costs.

The generally positive normative bias that attaches to international ‘cooperation’ has led many liberal institutionalists to advocate for new and stronger international institutions. Others have claimed that sovereignty has been transformed by globalization so that real governance requires integration into international and transgovernmental regimes and networks.

But there is not much liberal institutionalism in this recent article. In fact, to go by this piece, it seems that Robert Keohane has quietly converted to neo-Gramscianism without anybody noticing!

It is hard to define a neo-Gramscian approach to international relations according to a single core principle or axiom. Neo-Gramscian approaches generally emphasize the role of state–society relationships, elite power, and processes by which unequal power relations become stabilized through the construction of ‘hegemony’. But a good, simple summary of the neo-Gramscian approach to international institutions might read something like this:

‘Economic elites designed international institutions to serve their own interests and to create firmer links between themselves and governments. Ordinary people were left out.’

The funny thing is that this was not written by a neo-Gramscian, but by one of the leading thinkers of neoliberal institutionalism! I do not remember reading this in After Hegemony. There, as generations of IR students will remember, it is claimed that international institutions allow states to cooperate by reducing transaction costs and reducing uncertainty. (p. 107)

Colgan and Keohane go on to note that ‘[f]inancial firms and major corporations enjoyed privileged status within the order’s institutions, which paid little attention to the interests of workers.’

Their piece can be seen as a major addition to an emerging genre. That genre is the introspective self-criticism of previous champions of liberal globalism (John Ikenberry has written a similar piece more recently, here).

The authors acknowledge that ‘[t]hose of us who have not only analyzed globalization and the liberal order but also celebrated them share some responsibility for the rise of populism’. (p. 37)  Both Colgan and Keohane, as well as Ikenberry, end up calling for a return to a more ‘embedded’ and less economically neo-liberal form of internationalism.

It is just a shame that Keohane and others did not seem to listen to the people who were talking about the power relations, inequities, and risks associated with liberal globalism all along.

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