The high age of Occidental supremacy was that of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Sure, Europeans had already ridden a wave of smallpox and economic shifts away from overland trade and towards maritime networks in the centuries previous, shifting themselves from Asia’s western peninsula into a major core power region on the world stage by taking control of the New World’s resource potential. But it was with the advent of industrialization wedded to this new global maritime approach that brought the Europeans (and later the United States) from late-comers to the globally dominant powers of the world for two centuries. At the peak of this process, even a medium tier European power could behave as a formidable wrecking ball further abroad. It was for these reasons that the European state system became supreme across the globe, and it was also because of this that European supremacy came to be considered as inevitable, even biologically rooted and eternal.
We know now that this was not the case, of course. Decolonization has occurred since then. New empires are far more subtle at dealing with local proxies (most of the time). But at the height of this process that had yet to be seen outside of very temporary and regionally circumscribed events such as Red Cloud’s War or the Battle of Adowa. Ethiopia indeed deserves its own examination, but for now I wish to limit this explanation to two countries that stood out not just for bucking the trends of their day, but also by reinventing themselves and their own conditions of modernity through internal rejuvenation rather than simply holding the line. One example at the very height of the European expansion, and the other right before the start of its end.
To do this, I am going to be mentioning and partially reviewing two books which I read back-to-back specifically for this purpose. They are by different authors and have different themes but chart the process of reformist non-European states in the age of high imperialism achieving the rarity of full sovereignty in the face of disproportionate threads from abroad.
The Meiji Restoration
‘To Stand With the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History’, by Mark Ravina is an interesting work. One of my concentrations in college working on a history major was modern and especially imperial era Japanese history. This book had yet to exist then, but I wish it had. Ravina does an excellent job charting not just the radical modernization program of the Meiji state, but also the historical context laid by the Tokugawa Shogunate it replaced and other precepts.
Ravina has two core concepts at explaining the Meiji Era. ‘Cosmopolitan Chauvinism’ and ‘Radical Nostalgia.’ The first is the idea that any nationalist or patriot should want to learn from abroad and can sell doing so to the public as ‘if other people do it surely, we can do it even better.’ The second is that reinvention does not mean breaking from the past so much as finding examples of the past that break with present orthodoxies one might oppose. So, for example, adopting a western-style concept of territorially demarcated state can be sold as traditional flexibility. Did not the Shogunate leave its maritime borders intentionally vague to avoid conflict when the inter-state system was more stable? Did not the early imperial court emulate the legal and diplomatic precedents of the Tang Dynasty when that was the hegemonic power of East Asia? So, why not do the same in the age of Europe and adopt their most useful exports (which included the Westphalian diplomatic system).
Fortunately for my fellow Shogunate appreciators and I, Ravina does not repeat tired tropes about the Tokugawa regime being a bunch of hidebound reactionaries. They were constrained by a feudal system, yes, but their government had known over 250 years of peace with huge gains in infrastructure, literacy, the worlds first national forestry program. The government had been concerned with foreign encroachment for decades before Commodore Perry forced the issue in 1853 and had seen firsthand the impact of the Opium Wars on the then dominant state of Asia: the Qing Dynasty. Chinese ports were opened up at gunpoint and foreigners held extra-territorial rights within the once dominating empire. Proponents of Japanese modernization like Fukuzawa Yukichi were originally Shogunate employees, and it was the rebels from the southern domains who toppled the government who were the initially xenophobes.
But a funny thing tends to happen when you fight in a life-or-death struggle to replace one government with another. The real fires of war have a way of showing the power of technology and logistics that one might otherwise reject. ‘Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarian’ was a movement that upon taking power would use its new position to wipe away feudalism and create a state even more modern than that dared by the old and less-chauvinistic establishment. And it was here that the concepts of radical nostalgia and cosmopolitan chauvinism would really come into play. Japan would adopt what it needed so that it had the freedom to discard the rest. In so doing, it would take supposedly ‘western’ concepts and put them in its own understanding.
Ravina’s narrative ends shortly after the suppression of the Satsuma Rebellion, when rural discontent coupled with disaffected (and privilege-stripped) samurai came together under the Restoration’s former top general, Saigo Takamori in open insurrection against the government he himself had done so much to install. But the rebels, perhaps due to a terminal lack of Tom Cruise plot armor, failed quite miserably in this endeavor and the country was all the better for it.
The originally dominant figure of the Restoration, Okubo Toshimichi, took much criticism for his autocratic style of leadership in the run up to this civil war and after it. His policies, though more dictatorial than others in the new elite liked, were actually quite moderate and restrained in everything not related to economic development. One of the big falling out points between him and Saigo had been his objection to the latter’s desire to wage war on Korea. Nevertheless, not long after the death of Saigo, Okubo would himself be assassinated. Nevertheless, his successors (the most important of which were Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo-who pulled in different ideological directions) carried on most of his project. The Meiji Era would see the industrial age come to Japan, with its high rates of urbanization and infrastructure making it a surprisingly rapid addition to the so-called ‘civilized nations’ of the European age. With the arrival of modern constitutional monarchy and normalized diplomatic relations in the 1880s, the book ends. The class system had been made remarkably more egalitarian, legal practices were standardized, and public education had been introduced. The imperial phase would come next, of course. Japan would become famous in the colonized world as the first non-European country to stick it to the major powers of the modern era and thus (unintentionally) strike a blow against the implicit white supremacy of the time. But for now, the Europeans had been kept out and the state had modernized on its own terms. To quote the author: ‘They refashioned Japan as a distinct and legitimate polity within the western world order. That process required a rediscovery of Japanese uniqueness.’
‘From the Sultan to Ataturk’ by Andrew Mango is more of a straight historical narrative than the previously mentioned book. This should not surprise anyone as he is mostly famous for his Ataturk biography which is probably the best in the English language. While it does not introduce new concepts to the discourse, it provides a key work in covering the diplomacy, warfare, and upheavals between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Republic of Turkey. The birth of the modern Turkish state is an interesting juxtaposition with that of the Japanese one which had happened half a century earlier. Mostly due to the fact that the declining Ottoman Empire that preceded it was far from a nonentity and once had been the predominant great power in the Mediterranean world. Its gradual wasting away from that height over the course of two centuries brought it into World War I as a last-ditch gamble, and total ruination in the process. Most of the former country was under some kind of occupation and internal civil war. The situation in Anatolia had become what the Japanese had once feared was in store for them. The only country in comparable shape was Russia in that time, and that had still lost less of a proportion of their population. Istanbul was under Allied control in alliance with the new Sultan who saw collaboration as his only way to survive. France moved into the south to consolidate its new gains in Syria and the British were taking over Iraq. Then, with British support, the Greeks launched a full-scale invasion of the west coast. When one considers this (as well as what happened to Austria-Hungary), one really can’t help but think the Germans were some of the biggest whiners in history when it came to Versailles, but I digress.
Perhaps unsurprising to us today, living under Angloid cultural hegemony, many in the Istanbul press saw the opportunity of occupation as a chance to pontificate and posture as the heralds of new international order. Journalists of the city (including Boris Johnson’s great-grandfather who would be killed by a mob at the end of the war) became de facto collaborators with much of the Allied program. When Mustafa Kemal took control of the nationalists based in Ankara, the only country not hostile to him was the Soviet Union. After coming to a territorial settlement in the Caucasus, the also-embattled Soviets agreed to supply him with weapons to take on the allies and their proxies. It is at this point that Mango drops in an interesting little observation: ‘It was Britain which called the shots in the intricate negotiations on the disposal of the Ottoman Empire. Britain’s Near Eastern policy had been taken over by a bunch of young conservatives, the neo-cons of the time, who were [of course] in cahoots with the liberal imperialists.’
The Turkish War of Independence was conducted with diplomacy as much as on the battlefield. Once the Greek offensive had been stopped it became relatively easy to divide the former Allies. To the Soviets, Mustafa Kemal spoke about liberating people from the imperialist powers. To the French he spoke of compromise, to the Italians resisting the over-hubristic French and British, and to the British he presented himself as the only bulwark against Soviet communism as shown by his ability to get disputed territory back from them. This ended up having the Italians and French withdrawal from operations in the country and the isolation of Britain and Greece. That is when this telling quote dropped from the leader to the national assembly: ‘Turkey is engaged in a determined and vital endeavor, because it is battling in the cause of all oppressed nations, of the whole Orient.’ Turkey was, of course, fighting for itself, but the colonized world, especially Muslim majority countries, watched the battle with bated breath.
The great offensive against the Greeks began soon after. It was a decisive victory, fully evicting the invading army and, more tragically, leading to a mutual population exchange and ethnic cleansing between the countries which probably could not have been avoided at that point. This left the British and their minions, whose power Kemal respected too much to evict by force even if he probably could have at that point. Gradually, through diplomacy, the occupied and formerly vassalized nation, which refused to compromise on its sovereignty, reclaimed the position of diplomatic equal and forced the last Allied power out. Four years after the end of the Great War, the first revision to its end occurred. It would be the most successful of the coming revisions of Allied victory in the long term.
Gradually, Turkey worked out its remaining disputes using diplomatic means. The focus would be on constructing a new nation that broke with the old. The country was utterly devastated, and so development was the emphasis. Like in Japan earlier, this would be done by emphasizing the difference of Turkey and its need to find its own way-but to do this by adopting a selection of best practices from the established powers. Legal egalitarianism came with an added dose of feminism ahead of the majority of established countries around at that time, and education was emphasized in what was still a largely illiterate public. The gains made by the government in combatting illiteracy and building connective infrastructure was extremely impressive given the post-apocalyptic situation it found itself in.
Kemal loathed the old religious establishment and the overly powerful role religion played in society and enacted some of the most secularist reforms in history-which was greatly enhanced by evicting the Sultan and abolishing the offices of both the monarchy and its attached caliphate. This was extremely controversial in many of his Muslim fans abroad, especially in British occupied India, but he was prioritizing the elimination of a domestic counter-pole to power over the potential soft power or hosting such an institution abroad. The backlash to these actions created numerous rebellions, all of which were isolated and crushed. While Kemal avoided Okubo’s fate of assassination, there were certainly people who tried. But these reforms, much like the diplomacy that proceeded them, were about differentiating Turkey and enabling it to modernize on its own path, creating a country distinct from both the Middle East and Europe and able to have the internal cohesion to survive and dangerous time. Indeed, Turkey would remain mostly out of World War II, playing both sides off each other to avoid direct involvement only entering in at the very end to be part of the final peace settlement. It would only break its usual non-aligned stance when the state became directly threatened by Stalin’s plan to make the Straits out of the Black Sea international again.
Comparing and Contrasting these Two Examples
A collapsing power became a stable republic. A previous nonentity became a major power. Both of these governments were responses to specific challenges in the era of high European imperialism, and both of these governments, like all governments, would not last forever in their original form.
When it comes to similarities, I believe the most striking thing is how an embattled community can constructively build itself into a stronger position by being open to change. There is this tendency among people (especially both reactionaries and liberals) to assign a kind of binary to cosmopolitanism. It is either entirely good and universalist or its entirely bad and a secret plot to undermine society. But at its most constructive, it is actually a way to reaffirm community and sovereignty by embracing the world on one’s own terms. There is a price for this, of course, as both states, being ahead of the curve, would end up having quite strained relations with their near abroad for some time (obviously due to unwise levels of expansionism Japan met this fate to a far greater degree).
Another less positive similarity is that both countries would see their establishments become swamped by reactionary forces. This was hardly immediate or inevitable, and in the case of Turkey it took about twice as long to happen as in Japan, but it goes to show how success can breed complacency. The ideological descendants of Saigo Takamori would eventually arise in the Interwar Era and drive Japan into self-immolation and disaster. The Islamist rebels in Turkey would not live to see it, but the rise of political Islam in the Republic in the early 2000s would give them at least partial vindication if they had somehow been able to see it coming. By moving fast under crisis conditions, jump-started modernization programs can fuel their own backlashes.
Both of these states were governed by middle-tier oligarchies of often foreign educated political figures. Yet it is interesting to contrast that Japan officially went from a military dictatorship to civilian rule and would become a far more militarized society, while Turkey went from a monarchy-bureaucracy alliance that was fairly bellicose to a military-backed government that was largely peaceful and diplomatic for most of its early history. Fearing being on the end of another’s colonial project versus actually being on its other end of one may have had some role to play, though the sheer circumstances of opportunity likely played the biggest part.
And this brings me to my final observation: why is it that these examples are not studied as much as they should be? I have only my own theories here, but it’s a discussion worth starting. I have long been fascinated by the modern history of both of these countries but have found that in the English-speaking world these particular aspects of their history are not well known, even among those who study either the European expansion or the backlash against it. I believe this is because neither fit anyone’s preexisting ideological project very well in addition to coming a bit too early to be part of the officially recognized time for the end of European world dominance.
For the left, the fact that Japan would begin construction of its own high Victorian empire soon after modernization is seen as discrediting of the entire experience. Sympathy for Kurds is also a popular leftist position. Of course, I would contend that whether a country decides to expand or not, or how it treats its interior population, are separate issues from securing a constructive form of sovereignty regardless of what one’s other opinions are on a personal level. A major (if unstated) aspect of modern Anglo-leftism seems to be that of venerating losers and hating winners. This is a form of self-justification since it absolves them from the fact that they lose all the time. It doesn’t help that mainstream leftist historiography of the eras of high imperialism, like that of the massively overrated and oft-cited Eric Hobsbawm, is grotesquely Eurocentric and hyper fixated on grand universal narratives. Therefore, a progressive form of nationalism or sovereignty is an idea that cannot be countenanced as part of the march towards human betterment-which can only be seen as some kind of pan-human project. Never mind that the more successful communist experiments, such as Vietnam and (temporarily) Burkina Faso and Yugoslavia or China from Deng Xiaoping onwards, actually fit into this reformist-regionalist rubric quite well. This would mean that accepting that tribalism and one-upmanship is a key ingredient towards fighting the reactionary impulse.
The Anglo-right has its own struggles with these outlier countries. Perhaps not at first save for the natural chauvinism that dismisses the achievements of foreigners. After all, they correctly see that strength equals power and power equals the worthiness of a state to forge its own destiny. The problem for them arises from the fact that almost none of these state modernization programs were reactionary or conservative in nature. Some, especially Japan, would eventually become that, but the first 50 years of the modern Japanese state could hardly be described as conservative, and Kemalist Turkey was the very opposite of conservatism in almost every conceivable way save the romanticism about the Turkish ethnicity that came with it. There aren’t many countries that successfully pulled off the Francoist model in Spain, and even that one example was hardly as successful at improving its national position from the starting point as Japan or Turkey were. Even looking at the world today, countries like Rwanda who stand out as non-leftist modernist projects make a big deal about how inclusive they are towards women lawmakers and working towards ending ethnic divisions. Once again, the crisis nationalism of embattled states does not validate the ideological project of selectively interpreted history.
The contemporary center, perhaps, would be expected to have thoughts on these matters. But it doesn’t because most contemporary centrists are historically illiterate. Also, since centrism is now inseparable from liberalism in the 21rst Century, talking about any state that does not fit the precepts of that theory are likely to be rejected as illegitimate because…how dare people be different from a New York Times editorial page? But being different is the entire point of projects like this. In the future, countries will also differentiate themselves from neoliberalism just as they once did against British, French, and Russian designs. But those that take the fully nativist and blinkered approach will be far less successful than those who openly-if selectively-engage with the world. One needs engagement and detachment both to be distinct. And distinction polity capable of learning from each other is where so much of human innovation and creativity comes from.
In the end, the first states to rebel against the Occidental domination of the planet worked because they defied characterization. They did this because the only ideology that was important to them in a dangerous world was survival and thriving. To survive they chose what would help them remain distinctive from the Euro-Victorian monoculture while also taking its most useful aspects. In so doing they provide some valuable lessons even today. Especially for those living under conditions of institutional decline. It is no accident that two of these countries play a significant role in a major report I co-authored about the future of multipolarity. A future which will open up many new opportunities, for good or ill, when it comes to rising smaller states. Such societies would be wise to look at the successes and failures of those who came before.
In other words, Japan and Turkey began their modern lives not as this or that specific project, but as pragmatists whose concept of the political was that sovereignty requires innovation and distinction requires worldly knowledge. The only camp of thought that not only does not struggle to explain them but also understands them thoroughly is that of the political realists. Cosmopolitan chauvinism, indeed.
All of this makes me think of a classical composition from the 1920s about the Meiji Era. Kosaku Yamada’s Inno Meiji starts as a very western sounding composition. But then it gradually begins introducing more traditional Japanese elements. Then, at roughly the 13:35 mark the powerful element of premodern gagaku courtly music enters and merges perfectly with the modern orchestral elements.