Owen, John M., IV. The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510- 2010.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Michelsen, Niall
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Topic: NamedWork: The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Owen, John M., IV
Accession Number: 279722830
Full Text: Owen, John M., IV. The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2010. xii + 332 pages. Paper, $29.95.

If the importance of a new theoretical construct is measured by its ability to shed light on old puzzles, or to generate a new set of questions and puzzles, then this book is important. The title reveals the grand scope of the project covering six centuries of great power efforts to effect regime change. The basic argument is that military interventions to bring about such change are not new and they are not rare. In fact, the claim is that these are more common than are generally perceived. Moreover, these interventions occur under certain specifiable circumstances.

In the process of developing the theoretical basis of his claims, the author weaves together strands from two disparate approaches to analyzing international politics: constructivism and realism. From the constructivist school he adopts the notion that ideas matter in world politics; from realism he accepts the notion that states and power are essential features of world politics. The book begins with an extended discussion of the theoretical elements and claims. These chapters are followed by case studies of historical periods which are used to illustrate the elements in action. The case studies range from the sixteenth and seventeenth century struggles between church and state to current struggles between mosque and state that are evident in our newspapers and newscasts.

The central claim is that the transnational exchange of, and struggle over, ideas has helped set the stage upon which great powers exercise their power. Specifically, regime changes initiated by an alien great power are most likely to occur when a region is characterized by deep and vigorous dispute over fundamental ideas about society. By looking regionally, we can identify some state (or other political actors) which subscribes to Idea A while another state subscribes to Idea B. However, borders are porous so that even in the state subscribing to Idea A, there are advocates of Idea B who seek to replace the controlling (and misguided) elites. The elites see any successes enjoyed by Idea B as weakening their position at home and emboldening their domestic enemies. Conversely, any defeat of Idea B, including a regime change from B to A, strengthens the position of controlling elites in favor of Idea A. These circumstances increase the likelihood of a military invasion from a larger power against a weaker power. The author introduces the notion of transnational ideological networks (TINs) as the agents which link the internal calculations with the external. An example of these would be the Comintern, whose full name, Communist International, suggests its transnational mission. In this account of world politics, TINs are significant players that serve as instigators of state actions.

Because politics is intertwined rather than isolated, it is not surprising that these sorts of events are not randomly distributed through time, but rather occur in what the author describes as long and short cycles. At certain times a rough consensus on fundamental ideas exists, while other times are characterized by sharp ideological divisions.

The theoretical discussion is solidly based in the literature of international political theories. The case studies are based on secondary sources. In this sense the book is typical of political scientists who use history to test (and support) their theoretical preferences. This is a cause of some concern, since the 200 pages or so that are devoted to the case studies span six centuries, which necessitates a great deal of editorial decisions about what to include and what to exclude. Nevertheless, it appears that the author has been fair-handed in his treatment of the historical material. Even though historians will no doubt find fault with the author's treatment of some historical periods, what is most rewarding are the new insights this theoretical approach generates and these are seen vividly in the case studies. Owen does seem aware of the likely criticisms and makes a good faith effort to address them before they can be raised. While this is not likely to succeed in defusing all potential criticisms, it does set a very clear terrain for a sustained debate about his propositions that are well deserved.

The book is soundly grounded in contemporary theory buttressed by empirical data. The case studies are well written and carry a narrative thread well. They do not read as smoothly as some historical works since the author is constantly mindful of the theoretical questions at the heart of the enterprise.

In many ways Owen makes major contributions to our understanding of the dynamics of world politics. No longer will the imposition of regime change necessarily be seen as an anomaly, and when it goes against the direction we prefer, an aberration. Now, we can envision specific cases as falling into (if the theory is sound) a larger struggle over fundamental ideas of the proper regime type. In the first half of 2011 in the midst of what is being called the Arab Spring, some of the dividends of this approach can be seen. Clearly, the struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen now unfolding are not unrelated phenomena. And equally clear is the fact that the type of regime is very much at stake. While the NATO intervention in the Libyan struggle has been a belated effort to effect regime change there, and thus may not fit the argument well, it remains true that ideas do matter, and that they are not contained by the ever more porous national boundaries.

This book will be of interest to historians and of particular value to political scientists who have found existing explanations of post-Cold War politics lacking in explanatory power. It represents a valuable addition to our consideration of how and when great powers decide to effect regime change.

Niall Michelsen, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs

Western Carolina University

Cullowhee, North Carolina
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.