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The Promise of Institutionalist Theory
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The Promise of Institutionalist Theory
Robert O. Keohane

Robert O. Keohane is Stanfield Professor of International Peace, Harvard University, and author of After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton University Press, 1984).

Lisa L. Martin

Lisa L. Martin is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Government, Harvard University, and author of Coercive Cooperation: Explaining Multilateral Economic Sanctions (Princeton University Press, 1992).

The authors thank Marc Busch, Chris Gelpi, Andrew Moravcsik, and Celeste Wallander for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this essay.


1. Inis L. Claude, Power and International Relations (New York: Random House, 1962). Mearsheimer relies heavily on Claude's critique in his own discussion of collective security.

2. See Richard K. Ashley, "The Poverty of Neorealism," International Organization, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring 1984), pp. 225-286. Ashley included Robert O. Keohane as one of the "neorealists" whose "orrery of errors" he rejected. The fact that Mearsheimer criticized institutionalism and critical theory in the same article should not, therefore, lead readers to believe that there is an intellectual affinity between these two schools of thought. However, the work of "constructivist" theorists such as Alexander Wendt eloquently makes a number of arguments that many institutionalists would accept.

3. John J. Mearsheimer, "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War," International Security, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Summer 1990), p. 52.

4. John J. Mearsheimer, "Correspondence: Back to the Future, Part II," International Security, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 1990), p. 199.

5. John J. Mearsheimer, "The False Promise of International Institutions," International Security, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter 1994/95), p. 7. Subsequent references to this article are in parentheses in the text.

6. Robert Axelrod and Robert O. Keohane, "Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions," in Kenneth A. Oye, ed., Cooperation Under Anarchy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 227.

7. See Celeste A. Wallander, "Balance and Institutions in German-Russian Security Relations after the Cold War," manuscript, Harvard University, 1994; Celeste A. Wallander and Robert O. Keohane, "Toward an Institutional Theory of Alliances," paper prepared for delivery at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Chicago, Illinois, February 22-25, 1995.

8. See David A. Baldwin, ed., Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 323, especially chapters by Joseph Grieco, Duncan Snidal, Robert Powell, and Robert O. Keohane.

9. Duncan Snidal, "Relative Gains and the Pattern of International Cooperation," American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 3 (September 1991), pp. 701-726.

10. For development of arguments about the relationship between international regimes and distributional problems, see James D. Morrow, "Modeling the Forms of International Cooperation: Distribution versus Information," International Organization, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 1994), pp. 387-423; and James Fearon, "Cooperation and Bargaining Under Anarchy," manuscript, University of Chicago, 1993.

11. For example, Stephen Krasner has argued that coordination problems can be solved by the unilateral exercise of power by the strongest state. Stephen D. Krasner, "Global Communications and National Power: Life on the Pareto Frontier," World Politics, Vol. 43, No. 3 (April 1991), pp. 336-366.

12. Robert O. Keohane, "Reciprocity in International Relations," International Organization, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter 1986), pp. 1-27.

13. Robert O. Keohane, International Institutions and State Power (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1989), p. 10.

14. Since institutionalists do not claim that institutions always have a major impact on outcomes, finding weak institutions hardly constitutes a refutation of institutionalist theory. Hence the weakness of the International Energy Agency during the 1979 oil crisis, described by Keohane in After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), is hardly the damning evidence that Mearsheimer claims.

15. On such issues see Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

16. Ronald B. Mitchell, Intentional Oil Pollution at Sea: Environmental Policy and Treaty Compliance (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994). See also Ronald B. Mitchell, "Regime Design Matters: Intentional Oil Pollution and Treaty Compliance," International Organization, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 1994), pp. 425-458.