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

After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West by Ayşe Zarakol. Cambridge University Press, 2011, 312 pp.

The increasingly independent international agency of countries such as China, Brazil, India, and Turkey in global affairs has led many commentators to argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a “world without the West.” They suggest that the patterns and practice of international politics are being transformed by rules, norms, and institutions whose origin is not in the West. Thus, the ongoing financial crisis affecting both sides of the Atlantic seems to confirm this palpable perception of a decline in the significance of Europe and North America. Most observers take this to herald a qualitatively new condition in world affairs often labeled simply “a shift to the East” in international politics.

History tends to confirm the novelty of these nascent global dynamics. For at least 200 years, the rivalry over structural power in global politics has tended to be “the great game” of Western actors. Thus, the so-called Oriental/Third World/developing nations have been the plaything of Western whims—either as mere observers (at best) or as victims (at worst). In both instances, however, agency (especially, global agency) was not a feature of their international identity. Instead they were assumed to be passive recipients of the Western gaze/rule/aid as scripted by the templates of colonialism, the Cold War order, and democratization.

In this context, the growing prominence of non-Western agency has challenged both the perception and centrality of Western actors in international politics. At the same time, such agency vividly demonstrates that non-Western actors are just as willing and skilled to engage in the global playground as Western ones. Yet, as AyÅŸe Zarakol argues, the mainstream acknowledgment of this new reality generally tends to overlook the way in which non-Western states have learned to live with the West in the wake of their “defeat.” Zarakol, an assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, provides one of the most thoughtful accounts of this experience to date.

According to Zarakol, the non-West has consistently and deliberately been stigmatized in the mainstream discourses of IR. This seems to have positioned them as perennially stuck between the frameworks of external perceptions and their internalized reflections. Only recently have commentators begun to seriously question the pervasive associations between “Eastern, backward, Asian, Muslim, uncivilized, barbaric, etc.” ways of life (p. 3). In this setting, Zarakol demonstrates the relational nature of this derogatory labeling of non-Western actors and reveals poignantly that stigmatization is “as much [about] the internalization of a particular normative standard that defines one’s own attributes as discreditable, as it is a label of difference imposed from outside” (p. 4). This acknowledges the significance of the strategic storytelling of non-Western actors that seems to have been accorded little attention (if not entirely occluded) in the mainstream accounts of global affairs.

Through the exploration of the complex narratives underpinning the dynamics of international politics, Zarakol uncovers attitudes about self and other that do not transpire in conventional accounts of trade figures, geopolitical interests, and security threats. Looking particularly at the experience of Turkey, Japan, and Russia after their “defeats” by the West—for Turkey, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; for Japan, its demise in World War II; and for Russia, the breakup of the Soviet Union—Zarakol contextualizes the role of othering as a central feature of the patterns and practices of world affairs. Indicative of who is positioned inside a community of international interactions or excluded from it, the non-Western other provides both a context and tangible frame of reference for the simultaneous recognition and projection of the identity and dominance of Western international actors in global politics.

The framing of non-Western actors as the perennial others of international affairs has created the facilitating environment for the legitimation of different forms of Western intervention and supremacy. Thus, non-Western actors have consistently been denied their subjectivity in international life. As a result of such consistent projection of the perceptions, attitudes, and feelings of Western actors onto the non-West, the life of non-Western actors is marked by a palpable identity struggle. As Zarakol presciently observes, “while it is extremely difficult to live up to the standards of modernity—which, despite its universal language, has undeniable Western origins and therefore carries certain assumptions about proper social and institutional configurations—without feeling inauthentic, it is almost impossible to be authentically non-Western” (p. 5).

Turkey, Japan, and Russia offer conspicuous indications of this constant identity limbo of being torn between East and West. Zarakol demonstrates that, depending on the context and the issue, Ankara, Tokyo, and Moscow have on occasion actively attempted to appropriate this marginal status as leverage in positioning themselves as either symbolic bridges linking different geopolitical interests or robust shields against complex threats and uncertainty. More often than not, however, the uncertain (and sometimes, pariah) international identity of countries such as Turkey, Japan, and Russia has led them to perceive it as a weakness that needs to be overcome by siding with one side over the other.

Thus by drawing attention to the overlooked impact of stigmatization on the patterns of international interactions and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that dominate the practices of world affairs, Zarakol has made a thoughtful contribution to decentering the discipline of international relations. In this respect, her exploration has both epistemological and ontological implications: On the one hand, it has direct bearing on the ways in which we study international politics (especially, the identity, roles, and agency of non-Western actors); and, on the other hand, it actively contributes to the explanation and understanding of global life as constituted by multiple, coexistent, and interrelated worlds. Therefore, Zarakol’s book is expected to be of immense interest to the growing cohort of students and scholars of non-Western international relations. At the same time, her rarely erudite, yet extremely accessible account of the complex dynamics of world politics is likely to benefit all those interested in international history, political theory, development studies, and comparative politics.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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