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...