Saturday, May 5, 2007

Book of the week

Apologies for not posting a recommended book last week, due to my travels in China.

This week's selection is Fareed Zakaria's From Wealth to Power (Amazon link at right).

Zakaria's book, while in part a theory-laden discussion of the rise of great powers, focuses on how the US went from being an economic giant but a political and military midget in the late nineteenth century. Zakaria takes issue with the standard realist account of the balance of power, suggesting that in the case of the US what mattered in the emergence of the US were decisions taken in Washington in the decades following the civil war that enabled the federal government to exercise the latent power of the continental nation. The state's ability to draw upon the power of the nation forms the basis for what Zakaria calls "state-centered realism."

The implications of this theory for contemporary Japan are obvious. Twenty-first century Japan, in a manner not unlike late nineteenth America, is in the process of making the political decisions that will enable its government to wield national power that it has heretofore been denied.

One significant difference, however, is that Japan is trying to normalize its security policy in a regional environment more akin to Europe in the late nineteenth century, which means that whatever decisions that Abe Cabinet makes regarding Japan's security policy will undoubtedly raise alarms in neighboring capitals. Hence the absurdity of Abe's remarks last week about Japan's needing to keep its neighbors informed about constitution revision. The problem is not a matter of the fairness of Japan's having to genuflect to its neighbors regarding every mooted change to the postwar regime. No, Abe's pronouncement that Japan will explain changes to its neighbors is absurd because changing the constitution will send a clear signal to Japan's neighbors that it will play a more significant, independent role in the regional balance of power, a reality that no amount of "explanation" will be able to obscure.

In any case, Zakaria's book is an excellent corrective to systemic realism and a reminder that in international politics what happens within states is incredibly important (a point that seems obvious to most people but with which some — though, of late, fewer — IR scholars struggle).

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