Robert Keohane Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Theory and International Institutions: Conversation with Robert O. Keohane, James B. Duke Professor of Political Science, Duke University; March 9, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Bob, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Chicago, and then in western Illinois. But my parents met right here at Berkeley.

How was that? Were they students here?

They were students. They were Masters students here, in history and political science, and they met in the library.

Aha. So did you visit the library on this visit?

Not this time. It wasn't open. But last visit I did. I have made my pilgrimage to the library. Apparently my father hung around, followed my mother home, found out where she was living, hung out for a couple of days, and on their first date, asked her to marry him, which was impetuous, as he always was.

Little did they know that that meeting would lead to so many studies in international relations.

Let's hope they wouldn’t have decided to stop before they started!

So looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?

They were both social scientists. My dad taught at Chicago, in the college, and then later a place called Shimer College. He was a student of history; he never finished his Ph.D. thesis, which was on the Third International. He had an active interest in politics, and he was also an amateur politician. He was the Fifth Ward chairman of the IVI, the Independent Voters of Illinois, in Chicago, in 1949, '50. They were very active in the anti-communist Social Democratic, part of a Democratic party in the period that I was growing up. I was born in 1941.

My mother was a socialist in the 1930s. She was the daughter of a missionary. She was born in Japan. She became a very active leader of the League of Women Voters and other organizations, and she also taught high school at Phillips High School in Chicago, which was in the middle of the ghetto at the time. It was an all-black high school. So I was raised with a very strong sense of social responsibility, a very active sense of politics. We talked about politics a lot. I remember the Alger Hiss case vividly, as they struggled with Alger Hiss's guilt, which they recognized quite early; but most of their friends didn't.

Was it inevitable that you would go into political science, the study of government, or was that just a choice you made? And when did you make it?

Well, I considered law, like people often do.

Everybody does.

I considered journalism. I remember when I had my interview for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowships. I said, "maybe teaching, maybe law, maybe journalism." My mother always thought I should become a city manager because she had this "good government" orientation, but I think I was too much of an intellectual for that. I'm not sure it was inevitable, but it was pretty well channeled, I'm afraid. I don't think I was very rebellious about this.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

A place called Shimer College, which was an offshoot of [the University of] Chicago. I was an early entrant; I entered when I was not quite 16. Robert Maynard Hutchins headed up the college in Chicago in the 1940s, [when] my dad taught there. In 1950, they felt Chicago was getting a little bit rough for 16-year-olds, so they acquired this place called Shimer College -- it was two-year women's college that was on the ropes -- but they transplanted the Chicago program to it. My dad went out there to transplant the social science part of the program, and he stayed. I lived there until I was through the second year of high school, and then I fled to Shimer. Robert Keohane at Harvard Square, Easter 1982So I was there from the time I was 16 until the time I was 19.

And then you went on to do graduate work at Harvard?

That's right.

What do you remember from your days at Harvard? Who were your mentors there?

The chair of my dissertation committee was Stanley Hoffmann, and he's the person I'm most indebted to, although my strongest intellectual mentor was probably Judith Shklar, the political theorist, who was, I think, the most powerful mind in the department, even though as the time she was a lecturer because she was discriminated against on the basis of being a woman. She was someone who was quite fearsome: if you didn't get it right, you would know it from her.

So Hoffman and Shklar, Robert and Nannerl Keohane, with Inge and Stanley Hoffmann, October 2001who actually were very, very close friends themselves, are my two chief mentors from Harvard.

Were you dabbling at first in just regular political theory?

I was always interested in political theory. I'm a theorist by nature, and I love political theory more than anything else. If I hadn't had this very strong social democratic "do good" impression from my mother, who was a huge influence on me, I might have become a political theorist, political philosopher. That wasn't practical enough for me at that time. I wanted to actually accomplish something in the world a little bit more than the study of Locke and Hobbs suggested, so that's why I became a theorist in international relations, because I'm a theorist at heart; it's what I enjoy most. International relations appeared to be more practical and have more impact on the world. This was 1961 when I left college, which was the year of Kennedy's inauguration speech, and the sense that communism was taking over the country, or the world, and that somehow we had to devise better ways to defend American values and democracy and freedom in the world.

Next page: Being an International Relations Theorist

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