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By John Owen


The Montréal Review, September 2011


"The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010" by John Owen (Princeton University Press, 2011)  


"This book is a major contribution to the literature on hierarchy in international relations. It empirically demonstrates more convincingly than any other study to date that forcible regime change is a normal tool of statecraft. Owen's focus on the importance of transnational ideological polarization as the primary cause of such activity is an explanation that materialists cannot ignore."

-- Stephen D. Krasner, Stanford University


The Arab Awakening - the chain of rebellions and revolutions that have rocked the Arab world since last December - has riveted the attention of people the world over. In the West and elsewhere, we sense that what is happening in and across Arab countries is somehow about us, not just about them. But how exactly can that be? Are these not, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain in a very different context, quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing?

Some of us, seeing ordinary people risking their lives to be free of tyranny, feel that their struggle is like those that our forebears waged. Some of us go beyond sentiment and believe that the unrest and regime changes will have consequences for our own countries' wealth and security.

It may surprise readers that most academics who study international relations have long been skeptical of that latter kind of belief. The academic international relations guild, in its laudable attempt to build powerful (read simple) theories, has separated domestic from international politics. Not only are events in Tunisia thought unconnected to events in Egypt, but events in both will have no predictable effects on international relations and hence no general consequences for the outside world.

The Clash of Ideas in World Politics was published several months before the first outbreak of unrest in Tunisia. But the book can be seen as a sustained attack on this academic separation between domestic and international politics. Clash of Ideas is, in the first instance, about what I call forcible regime promotion, that is, uses of force by one state to alter or preserve the domestic regime of another. Many scholars have written about American attempts to spread liberal democracy (or failures to do so), but few if any have treated those attempts as examples of a general, longtime practice of statecraft.

Clash of Ideas looks at more than 200 cases of forcible regime promotions by a variety of countries over 500 years. These promotions occur in three big clusters: in Central and Western Europe from the 1520s through the 1680s; in Europe and the Americas from the 1760s through 1850s; and in most regions of the world from the 1910s through 1980s. Other times and places feature war and conflict, but relatively little forcible regime promotion. Furthermore, within each of these clusters the regimes being promoted were of a small number. In the first, they were Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist regimes; in the second, republican, absolute-monarchist, or constitutional-monarchist; in the third, communist, fascist, or liberal-democratic.

The book also is about the causes of forcible regime promotion. It is about transnational ideological networks, or groups of people who believe in one regime type and communicate across national boundaries to promote that type. (Think of the Jesuits, the early Freemasons, the Socialist International, or the Muslim Brotherhood.) It is about where those groups come from, why they last as long as they do, and why they disappear when and where they do. It is about events that these groups exploit - unrest, revolution, war - to polarize people across countries and to push governments into acting in a more ideological fashion. Networks use whatever media they have to agitate and polarize. In the sixteenth century, it was the newly invented printing press; in the twentieth, that plus radio and television; in the twenty-first, all of those plus the internet.

Finally, Clash of Ideas is about how these decades-long, region-wide ideological contests fade away. They do so when one state exemplifying one ideology manifestly outperforms states exemplifying its competitors, showing itself superior in terms of wealth and power. The clearest example is the steep decline of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the United States in the 1970s and 1980s that contributed mightily to the disappearance of communism as a viable transnational movement. Another example is the emergence of a kind of hybrid regime in the 1860s, exemplified by Great Britain at that time: a constitutional monarchy capable of gradual reform that had built the greatest empire in history and inspired imitation among the other major powers.

Today's Arab Awakening is a complex set of events, but Clash of Ideas provides some tools that can help us understand and explain much about it. Change some words, and what is happening in the Arab world looks remarkably like any of several waves of unrest and revolution in Europe 450 or 200 years ago. Protest and insurrection are again contagious, again carried by transnational networks of people using new media. People are again arguing, fighting, and dying for one or another vision of the good society, be it liberal, authoritarian, Islamist, or some other. And now, as then, countries - including NATO members - are intervening to influence the outcomes.

I end, then, with a thought about outcomes. One lesson of the past is that, hard though it may be for Westerners to accept, the Arab Awakening may not end with the triumph of liberal democracy. Even if countries once authoritarian become democratic, the democracies may be more heavily shaped by Islam - with laws derived from Shariah - than we are ready to accept. The history related in Clash of Ideas suggests that regimes win not based upon how well modern Westerners like them, but upon how well states that exemplify them compete internationally. It is not at all clear that we are thinking seriously about the consequences should the most competitive regime in the Arab world prove to be Islamic democracy.


John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security and co-editor of Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order.


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