Twenty Years of Institutional Liberalism



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Robert K.-Liberalism (1)



International Relations 

26(2) 125–138 

© The Author(s) 2012 

Reprints and permission: sagepub. 

co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav 

DOI: 10.1177/0047117812438451 

ire.sagepub.com 

Twenty Years of Institutional 

Liberalism 

Robert O. Keohane 

Princeton University 



Abstract 

The world has now experienced what could be regarded as 20 years of Institutional Liberalism: 

the dominance of the view that cooperation in world politics can be enhanced through the 

construction and support of multilateral institutions based on liberal principles. E. H. Carr was 

famously skeptical of liberalism as he understood that tradition. This essay, prepared originally as 

the E. H. Carr Lecture at Aberystwyth University, interrogates Institutional Liberalism through 

a lens provided by Carr’s most famous book on international relations, 

The Twenty Years’ Crisis

It points out three trends since the 1990s that may be associated with Institutional Liberalism: 



increasing legalization; trends toward more legalism and moralism; and a decline in the coherence 

of some international regimes. Reviewing these trends in light of Realist critiques of liberalism, the 

essay rejects Realism as a good moral or practical guide to world politics, but reaffirms the value 

of the Realist view that institutions depend on structures of power and interests. Increases in 

legalization, legalism and moralism reflect a fusion of the social purpose of liberal democracies with 

their unprecedented geopolitical power since 1991. But declines in the coherence of international 

regimes reflect a greater divergence of interests, weighted by power. All international institutions 

are flawed and in some ways precarious, but strengthening them in ways that reflect legitimate 

social purposes remains a major challenge for our time. 

Keywords 

institutions, legalism, liberalism, moralism, power, Realism 

This essay, based on the E. H. Carr Lecture that I gave at Aberystwyth University on 27 

October 2011, is about Institutional Liberalism during the past 20 years – a period of 

liberal dominance. Broadly speaking, I view Institutional Liberalism through a concep­

tion of international political authority provided by John Ruggie 30 years ago. That is, 

Institutional Liberalism provides one basis for political authority, conceived as a ‘fusion 

of power and legitimate social purpose’.

1

 It holds that institutions and rules can facilitate 




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