Friday, March 15, 2013

After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West

Washington and Lee University
News and Media, 2011

After growing up in Turkey and then studying international relations in the United States, Ayşe Zarakol realized there was something missing from the literature on international relations. "It had almost nothing to say about the constant struggle with identity issues in countries such as Turkey that I heard on almost a daily basis," she said.

In her first book, "After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West" (Cambridge University Press, February 2011), Zarakol used history, social theory and political theory as well as the field of international relations to make the point that international identity matters to countries.

Zarakol, assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, said that American scholars have tended to focus on the argument that material resources and weapons determine international relations. "I want to draw attention to what may just be the most glaring oversight in mainstream international relations - the lack of attention given to the social nature of the modern international system and its cultural and historical origins," she said.

She explained that international norms about states, and people in those states, have been operating since the 19th century when Europe was at its most racist and imperialistic. "The book is not a manifesto against Western civilization. The norms have changed over time and become more pluralistic, and that's to the credit of the international system. But we need to acknowledge that these norms have Western origins. Most countries in the world did not share that heritage when they joined the international system and had to adapt to a culture that was foreign to them."

The international norms stigmatized countries for being non-Western, and for not being sufficiently modern, developed, industrialized, secular, Christian or democratic. Zarakol argued that stigma has the same effect on states that it has on individuals. "We know that social stratification persists in domestic systems even in the face of legal equality, and we know how much of an obstacle social inequality may be for individuals to fully exercise their autonomy - how is that lesson so easily forgotten in international relations?" she asked.

Zarakol examined Turkey after World War I, Japan after World War II and Russia after the end of the Cold War, to show how they adapted to Western norms by integrating into the international system after losing to Western powers.

"These types of Eastern countries, which used to be powerful and were not colonized by the West, tend to be especially preoccupied by status concerns, and this drives their foreign policy and sometimes their domestic behavior," she said.

Zarakol pointed out that once you start seeing yourself in a comparative light you have basically two choices, just as a stigmatized person in domestic society has - you can embrace the norms and try to assimilate or you can reject them. But both strategies lead to reinforcing the norms.

"If the stigmatized outsider attempts to become ‘normal' through assimilation, he confirms the definition of himself as not ‘normal.' If he argues against the ‘normal' view by pointing out that there are other experiences which that ‘normal' view does not account for, he draws attention to the ‘abnormality,'" she said. "The only way out of the impasse is to make no choice at all and resign oneself to living in a condition of ambivalence."

Zarakol said that what people want most of all is to matter, and that what keeps their faith in the system is the hope that they will matter some day, even if they do not matter today.

"I think there needs to be a better understanding of how social hierarchies in the international system have affected people's lives in the last century," she said. "Because I think the 20th century was a time of promise, in the sense that if a country acted in a certain way it would move up both the material and social hierarchy. But that hasn't really been the case for many countries and I think that's a big problem in international relations. There is little recognition that lack of upward mobility is shaping the motivations of people around the world and creates resentment."

She also pointed out that the scholarly discipline of international relations has barely begun to accept that such social inequalities between countries even exist.

Citing the examples of Japan and Turkey, which have pursued Western-friendly policies in order to gain recognition, Zarakol said that neither country has been able to find a secure place in the international order. "For example, despite its great success and being a member of the G8, Japan is not a rule maker. It doesn't set the agenda in the international system."

I think there may be a limit to how long the majority of the world's population will tolerate living under an international system whose rules they have very little input in, and one in which even the most successful outsiders are never accorded the full respect that their material success entitles them to."

Zarakol added that, for the most part, the field of international relations deems the dilemmas of these countries as irrelevant to modern-day politics. "Not only is this problematic from a social science perspective, but it is also dangerous from a policy-making angle," she said. "Simply put, we need a meritocratic international system, instead of one that is only described as such."

"After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West" is available on Amazon or from the Cambridge University Press.


"A highly sophisticated and impressive book that provides an important contribution to the role of identity in International Relations. By focusing on three key ‘interstitial' states-Japan, Russia and Turkey -which have been located on the ‘inferior' side of the ‘established-outsider' organizing principle of international society, Ayse Zarakol advances a novel understanding of International Relations that goes beyond extant constructivist and English School theories." - John M. Hobson, University of Sheffield

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