Matthew Partridge suspects that the latest book by Ayse Zarakol may be a missed opportunity to focus on the impact of past defeat on future foreign policy.

After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Ayse Zarakol. Cambridge University Press. April 2011.

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There is general agreement that one factor behind Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was the lingering belief among a significant segment of the German population that Germany’s defeat in 1918 was due to a lack of political will, rather than forced on it by military necessity. Similarly, American historians accept that both the failures of reconstruction and the myth of the “lost cause” are central to understanding why segregation and Jim Crow persisted in the American South for nearly a century after the Civil War. Finally, until the dramatic success of the Iraq surge four years ago created a new narrative, every U.S foreign policy intervention was routinely compared to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Therefore, from a historian’s perspective, Ayse Zarakol’s argument that past experience can shape the future policy of states, with military and political defeat potentially leading to both a sense of inferiority and resentment, is not particularly novel. However, as Dr Zarakol points out, contemporary international relations theory tends to neglect such “irrational” factors. After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West therefore uses three case studies of “Eastern” countries that experienced major military defeat at the hand of Western powers, Turkey after World War One, Japan after the Second World War and Russia after the Cold War, to examine the importance of this effect.

Before looking at the three examples, Zarakol spends the first two chapters on the theory underpinning her ideas. Unfortunately, these two chapters make her arguments less, not more, clear. This is because she spends most of these chapters focusing on stigma and ways in which countries can be made to feel like they are “outsiders”, rather than on the effects of military defeat. She also takes a very broad view of what can cause countries to feel inferior, even claiming that talking about “developed” and “developing countries” is no better than the nineteenth century emphasis on racial demographics as a measure of civilization.

Zarakol gives an engaging potted political history of Turkey in the nineteenth century. She also convincingly plots Atatürk’s rise to power in the aftermath of World War One. However, she overestimates the extent to which the post-1923 political settlement brought Turkey in line with Enlightenment norms. “Kemalism” led to the end of the Caliphate and a more general secularization, two substantial achievements. However, it also involved an authoritarian political structure and government repression of religious practice. Contrary to what Zarakol implies, Turkey was neutral for all but the closing weeks of the Second World War. Even today Turkey remains a relatively impoverished country, while Freedom House classifies its political system as only “Partly Free”.

Ironically, Zarakol makes the opposite mistake in the case of Japan, downplaying the extent to which the American-led occupation fundamentally changed Japanese society and economy. While U.S priorities clearly shifted in response to Soviet, and then Chinese, threats, her claim that “only two of the planned reforms were enacted in the way originally envisioned”, is simply untrue. She also gives the impression that Japan’s wartime business, military and political leaders were unaffected, when in fact many were either prosecuted for War Crimes, removed from their jobs or forced to resign. Similarly, while post-occupation Japan-United States relations were not always smooth, she overplays the differences between the two countries.

The final case study concerns Russia after the end of the Cold War. Here, Zarakol accurately captures the disjointed nature of post-Soviet foreign policy. She also indirectly acknowledges that end of the USSR left Russia without its empire, but with much of its former ruling elite and enough military and economic power to influence events in the region. However, Zarakol could have stated this more explicitly, and could have drawn more comparisons with Turkey and Japan.

Overall, this monograph is a missed opportunity, let down by the fact that the author is unclear whether she wants to focus on the impact of past defeat on future foreign policy or on the effect of “stigma” more generally.

Dr Matthew Partridge has recently completed a PhD in Economic History at the London School of Economics.

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