Robert Owen Keohane
USA
2016 Balzan Prize for International Relations: History and Theory
Balzan Awards Ceremony
Berne, Federal Palace, 17 November 2017
Acceptance Speech
President of the Swiss Confederation,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor to receive the Balzan Prize in International Relations: History and Theory. My mentor, Professor Stanley Hoffmann, was awarded the Balzan Prize twenty years ago, which makes this occasion even more meaningful for me.
Observers of international politics have emphasized for hundreds of years that sovereign states, legally recognized by other states and with autonomy over their domestic institutions, are the dominant actors. Those states that are capable of doing so control their borders, determining who and what can move in and out. States can make treaties but they also make war. As a result, world politics is conventionally referred to as a realm of “anarchy” – denoting lack of common government and often implying an absence of international cooperation.
Although this account of world politics has been accurate for some periods of history, it offers little explanation for the rapid growth of formal international organizations in the 20th century. International organizations are entities established under international law with a bureaucracy and at least three sovereign states as members. By one careful count, there were no such organizations in 1850, 25 in 1900, 50 in 1920, 100 in 1950, and 350 by 2000. That is, during the 20th century, the number of formal international organizations doubled roughly every 25 years.
The contrast between the theory of “anarchy” and the reality of extensive cooperation generated the puzzle that I sought to resolve. How could we explain institutionalized cooperation among sovereign states having no common government? Clearly, states remained important and their interests often clash, so there is more discord than harmony. Yet despite that discord, institutionalized cooperation has become quite common.
My explanation assumed that states make broadly rational strategic choices, which implies that these cooperative networks and organizations served their interests. I developed what I called a “functional theory” of international cooperation: states create institutions because they perform coordination and regulatory functions that are valuable for states. In particular, these institutions provide information to states, and reduce the costs of transactions among them, in situations where policy coordination is mutually beneficial. The more dense the pattern of mutually beneficial economic and social relationships among societies, the more valuable multilateral institutions are.
During the second half of the 20th century, interdependence has expanded rapidly, producing what we now describe as “globalization.” The aggregate benefits of globalization are substantial, and so are the benefits from the multilateral institutions that help to regulate it. Without institutions there would be less cooperation. Without cooperation, discord would generate conflict and likely precipitate the collapse of relationships in trade, finance, and direct foreign investment, as well as efforts to cope with collective problems such as refugee movement, climate change policy, and terrorism.
This argument reveals the shallowness of the claim frequently made – not least by the current US administration – that states pursue their own interests in competition with one another. Indeed, they do pursue their own interests and they do compete. But the key questions are: How do they define their interests and through what means do they compete? States can compete by trying to make their societies more attractive to others – what Joseph Nye has called “soft power” – or by using military force to coerce others. The soft power world is likely to be a much better world than the hard power world. Ironically, following policies that equate self-interest with trying to compete on a hard power basis is unlikely to achieve self-interest in the end.
Although neither states nor self-interest are about to disappear, they don’t have to. Leaders and publics should recognize that far from being antithetical to self-interest, institutionalized cooperation is in the interest of all governments that are focused on the well-being of their own peoples. We need the World Trade Organization to prevent a cycle of protectionism and trade wars. We need the United Nations Security Council to provide a channel for pressure on North Korea short of war and to organize peacekeeping within countries torn by civil war. We need the G-20 and central bank cooperation to promote measures to reduce the risks of another financial collapse. We need the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to encourage states to admit refuges in a relatively fair way. Multilateral cooperation is neither an idealistic enterprise nor a naïve fantasy. On the whole, it promotes our interests, it may encourage us to define our interests in a positive way, and it softens the edges of discord.
I am currently engaged in thinking about how to encourage interstate and transnational cooperation to solve the pressing problem of climate change. With my Balzan Prize money, I hope to encourage higher quality and better-focused research by younger scholars on this issue. Once again, let me indicate my profound gratitude for the confidence placed in me by the Balzan Foundation and the Selection Committee.
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